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Rev. Brendan Busse broke into a sweat the first time he shopped for a clerical shirt. He had nine years to go before he would become a priest, and the idea of wearing the black collar and white tab that would prompt strangers to call him “father” unnerved him.
He recognized that those “clothes are not just about me,” as he wrote in a 2012 Jesuit Post essay. “They are about my relationship with everyone out there. When I wear that black clerical shirt in public, when I pull that white tab across my throat, I am giving myself to them. The people I encounter then, they no longer see the ‘me’ I’d like them to see...Instead, they see ‘priest.’”
The eccentric John the Baptist wore a camel hair frock with a leather belt, and Jesus told followers not to care about their clothing. Yet what the clergy wear has been a topic of interest for the church and the laity for centuries. Last year, when news spread that a priest wore a pair of Yeezys during a church service, it sparked outrage. Catholics questioned the morals of a holy man who would sport footwear that costs several hundred dollars. But there was a plot twist: The priest was wearing knockoffs.
In contrast, Pope Francis made headlines for wearing a simple pair of black leather shoes to his first visit to the U.S. in 2015. That’s because his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, always wore the traditional red shoes befitting of his rank. Their styles may be distinct, but both men have earned honors from Esquire for their sartorial choices. In 2013, the magazine named Pope Francis “The Best Dressed Man of the Year,” and in 2007, it named Pope Benedict XVI “Accessorizer of the Year.”
Unless they manage to score a pair of real Yeezys, your local clergy members aren’t likely to attract much attention for their style. But how they dress matters. Christian churches began imposing dress codes on the clergy as early as the Sixth century, and today religious leaders from high church denominations continue to adhere to guidelines about what they wear, both formally and informally. The clothing needs of the clergy spawned a niche industry led by nuns, family businesses, and suppliers. Launched as long ago as the late 1800s, these companies have seen trends in clergy attire skew from traditional to casual, witnessed a rise in demand for women’s apparel, and watched as leaders from denominations that did not historically require specific religious dress become top consumers.
On the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, near the gritty but gentrified neighborhood of Echo Park, nuns sit at sewing stations making garments for the clergy. In addition to praying for those in distress and feeding the needy, the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master make the religious attire known as albs, chasubles, surplices, and dalmatics. Producing vestments is one of the major responsibilities of the 93-year-old order and other nuns across the country.
It takes Sister Clare, a recent transfer to the Los Angeles community of nuns, up to four days to make one priest’s robe. Given that she’s new to sewing, this is an impressive feat. But the sister, a Samoa native who’s lived everywhere from New Zealand to Fresno as part of the order, says she could work even faster if sewing were her only duty.
On a recent Friday, traffic buzzed outside the convent, silent except for the squawks of a caged parrot in the garment workshop. In the adjacent gift store, Sister Clare pointed out her handiwork — chasubles in white, green, and red with strips of embroidery in the middle. While it takes a few days for her to complete a simple piece, it can take her up to week to complete a fancier garment like a dalmatic, a tunic with ornate stitchwork.
“We don’t wait until they come in and ask [for the clothing],” she explained of their clients. “We continuously work.”
The nuns customize by request and use a supplier to meet the needs of clergy who want special items. Founded in 1924 in Alba, Italy, the order has five communities in the United States. In California, their custom-made apparel has garnered repeat writeups in the Los Angeles Times. The nuns, however, mostly stick to formal wear for religious leaders. Casual wear, like clerical shirts, can be found at the handful of American businesses devoted to manufacturing clothing for the clergy.
CM Almy in Maine has outfitted religious leaders in both formal and leisurewear since 1892. Just eight years earlier, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore decided that Catholic clergy in the US should always wear the long garment known as the cassock or a shorter dress during their leisure time. But even the shorter garment needed to be at least knee length and black, a symbol of poverty. The council also regulated that clergy, be they in their own diocese or elsewhere, should wear the Roman collar, a symbol of obedience.
Today, clergy members typically wear the vestments specified in holy books for formal church services. But, depending on their denomination, they have a variety of options for leisurewear.
While black remains the most popular clerical shirt color, they can now be found in a rainbow of colors — from green to grape.
In the days of the early church, the clergy did not have a distinct dress code. But before long, local synods barred religious leaders from wearing fun stuff like bold colors, flashy jewelry, and flimsy clothing. When the Middle Ages arrived, the cassock, once widely worn by lay people, became distinctly associated with the clergy, according to the Arlington Catholic Herald. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Catholic Church imposed more restrictions on clergy dress, and other liturgical denominations followed suit.
Stephen Fendler, CM Almy’s president and owner since 1985, grew up in the church and finds it satisfying to meet the unique sartorial needs of the clergy.
“It’s really a lot of fun — the ability to make these beautiful things and to work with these fabrics and the people who weave them,” he says. “The customers are wonderful people to work with and to help. They’re not the normal consumer group.”
Tailor Clarence Mortimer Almy (the great uncle of Fendler’s grandfather) started the business with his son James in New York City. In 1929, his grandnephew Donald Fendler took over, seeing the company through both the Great Depression and World War II. His sons later moved it to Pittsfield, Maine. Today, CM Almy employs 110 people.
Unlike the nuns who make clergy apparel exclusively for Catholic leaders, CM Almy outfits religious leaders from a range of Christian denominations. In addition to Catholics, it serves leaders from the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and United Church of Christ traditions as well as a growing number of Pentecostals.
“We’ve seen clergy people go from wearing cassocks, long black garments, all the time to instead wearing vests and trousers, so there’s a little bit more of a modern way of dressing when they’re outside the church,” Fendler says.
He pointed out the impact the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had on religious attire. From then on, the Catholic Church and other denominations began to loosen restrictions on how the clergy dressed. Today, the Catholic Church allows clerics to wear ecclesiastical garb that follows doctrine or “legitimate local custom."
Ordained as both a Jesuit priest and a deacon this year, Rev. Busse sometimes wears the traditional Latin American shirt known as the guayabera instead of a black clerical shirt. He serves on the pastoral team of the Dolores Mission Parish in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Because Boyle Heights is heavily Latino, he says there the guayabera is the cultural equivalent of “father figure” clothing.
Since writing about his first visit to a clerical goods store, the 39-year-old says he has a “great sense of who I am in the vocation.” While he once worried that wearing cleric’s clothing might lead people to project their preconceptions about the church and the priesthood onto him, he now has a different view.
“There’s always room for self-expression,” he says of wearing religious garb. “Sometimes a blank palate allows for self-expression. My personality might be accentuated.”
As it is, Father Brendan stands out for dedicating his life to the church when Catholicism is desperate for more priests. The Economist reported in January that the number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped from 59,000 to 38,000 over the past 50 years. The steep decline doesn’t bode well for the specialty companies that make clergy apparel.
“There are fewer Catholic priests than there were in the ’80s and that has not been offset by the emergence of Catholic deacons,” says Fendler, adding that in spite of this trend, sales haven’t suffered much.
While the number of Catholic priests has plummeted, the number of female clergy from different denominations has risen in recent decades. This trend has led religious apparel companies to adjust to meet women’s needs. During the 1980s and ’90s, Bentley & Simon, a clergy outfitter in Roanoke, Virginia, began to adapt some of their garments to better serve women in the church.
“We cut everything down,” says Donna Hodges, executive vice president. “What we did was take the velvet, and we made it much more narrow. On the men’s clergy gown, there’s five inches. We cut it down to three inches for the women. We highlighted stitching down the pleats to give it a little more feminine look. We took out a lot of the fullness and bulkiness from the body of the gown to give it more of a tailored appearance. That’s what women wore for a number of years.”
Eventually Bentley & Simon, open since 1912, added “almost dress-looking styles” to its collection of clergy wear, Hodges says. The company also offered albs, usually a full-length vestment in white linen, in colors. And rather than the heavy wool it offers to men, the company offers lightweight wool to female clergy in need of garments traditionally worn during formal ceremonies.
Both female and male clerics routinely have their attire custom made as well. Gaspard Inc. in Brookfield, Wisconsin, “primarily does custom work,” according to Jason Gaspard, president and owner. Gaspard’s father, Robert, started the business in 1954 to meet the apparel needs of religious leaders. He says the business’ craftsmanship distinguishes it from rivals.
“We can pretty much create just about whatever the customer is envisioning, whether it be style, color, abstract, contemporary,” he says. “We’re fully staffed with highly skilled artisans and seamstresses. We have a library full of designs. What really separates us from our competitors is we don’t mass produce.”
Rev. Busse appreciates handmade clerical apparel. He takes issue with clerical goods stores that import their clothing and mark up the prices. “I think that’s the real scandal,” he says.
A clerical shirt can cost as little as $18 and as much as $76, while a chasuble can cost as much as several hundred dollars.
“There’s this contemplative cloister of nuns whose whole vocation is to make vestments and clothes for priests,” Rev. Busse says. “They put all of their prayer into these literally tailor-made clothes. There’s some real worth and artistic beauty in that.”
Leaders from high church denominations and evangelical leaders purchase the custom-made materials available at Gaspard. Over the past decade, the president says he’s noticed an uptick in demand from evangelicals, even though low church denominations haven’t traditionally adhered to the strict regulations in dress that liturgical denominations have.
Katy Malm, administrator of the Robe Shop, a supplier of clergy apparel in Kirkland, Washington, says that some denominations seem to implement new rules about clergy dress on a whim. What’s more, they don’t bother consulting clothing suppliers and manufacturers about the changes, she adds.
A clergy member will tell her, “‘I have to have a garment with so many buttons or a certain color,’” she says. “But no one has told us that’s what they need. So it would be helpful if they would talk to a few manufacturers.”
She says her company, which she and her husband opened in 1979, does customize clothing. The process typically takes two months, though. Over the years, it has fulfilled a variety of requests, like putting pockets into garments to accommodate microphones. The company also sells a cassock-dress hybrid for women and jackets for fashion-conscious church leaders.
“They have the clergy collar built into the jacket, but it looks very up to date,” she says. “More stylish, younger pastors want to look hip, and in their clergy jackets, they look very stylish.”
Some clients have grown fond of wearing the vestero, a long sleeveless garment one can wear over a clergy shirt. It’s not as formal as the standard clerical vest but still looks smart, Malm says.
Mike Cotter, president of Cotter Church Supplies Inc. in California, has noticed many of the same trends that his competitors have discussed. He’s watched the clergy adhere to rigid dress codes in the past and have more room to explore their creativity today. Clerics can now even buy attire in kente cloth print, he notes.
His father started the business in 1948, and Cotter decided to follow in his footsteps because “it’s a very friendly business,” he says.
“Sometimes they can be pretty tough, but overall they’re pleasant people,” he says of the clergy. “I enjoy doing business one-on-one with them and building up trust.”
Since clerics don’t tend to shop around for their clothing, according to Cotter, he aims to take their needs seriously. Increasingly, that may mean a cassock designed for a woman or a bright clerical shirt for a church leader with a nonconformist streak.
But Rev. Busse isn’t as interested in the style, cut, or fabric of his apparel as he is in what his attire signifies.
“It represents a kind of a way in which you belong to other people, and other people have a claim on who you are,” he says. “A lot of clothing is self-representation, particularly with uniforms of any kind or religious clothing. The clothing part of it is saying, ‘This is who I am and who I’ve chosen to be.’”