Intro to vesture

I mentioned a while back that on one of the Confidential Mailing Lists I’m On the question of clericals and vestments came up. I offered this.

Practical points

  • The “coverall”/uniform effect shouldn’t be overlooked. It puts the minister in a state of dignified neutrality. As in “this is appropriate to wear for your funeral whether you’re a pauper or monarch.”
  • Bad tailoring is a bad bargain. Vesture can cover your civies, though.
  • “Clever” vesture ages badly and is the worst value of all.
  • Commercially available North American vesture is geared to the semi-portly man of middling height. If you’re not one of these, view gifts with a hairy eye, and consider biting the bullet and getting custom-made.
  • Live with the fact it’ll all be 100% polyester, unless you have a Martha-esque view towards ironing. Any washable vesture is a godsend, but don’t buy anything black that isn’t mostly polyester. Black cotton cloth greys very fast.
  • Don’t plan on getting your gear cleaned; plan on keeping it all clean. (After 11 years, I’ve never had my gowns cleaned; I do spot-clean.) A lint roller and steamer are your friends.

The selection

  • Despite “academic gown” references and Dissenter history, English priest and ecclesiologist Percy Dearmer places the black gown in the line of (medieval) ecclesiastic garb. Don’t apologize for it.
  • As a sign of being a learned cleric, I wear bands. Under a Moravian (all-around) collar in my case; this is the “lowest” of the collars. A tall collar “scans” low church, too, btw; mine are 4 cm high.
  • I’m convinced albs propagate a form of doecetism. (What’s under that shapeless thing, anyway? Pure pneuma?)
  • That said, if I had it to all over again, I would wear the black gown for “preaching services” and a white garment with stole for the sacraments. The usual white garments options are the cassock-alb (ugh); cotta over cassock (tres Roman, prone to frilliness); or surplice over cassock the one I’d go with, even though it reads Anglican. (But worn by Charles Travis, the minister of the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel, Leeds.) I suppose the white version of the black gown is an option, but I’ve always though they make a person look the Michelin Man.
  • Francis of Assisi on a US postage stamp

  • Unless you intend to finish your ensemble with a tonsure, sandals, and a sparrow, any white garments you wear should be white, not off-white or oatmeal.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Excellent! Thank you for the practical advice. In between all the theological reflection, history of liberal religious movements, social justice notes, blah blah blah, basic practical advice. I suspect I’ll do the black gown + stole (even if it mixes traditions, but then so do I). I may even break the Scott Wells sartorial advice and get an off-white or oatmeal alb. And I’ll accessorize with a long brown hooded cloak and a lightsaber.

  2. Jim, this last look would be perfect. Just a wave of the hand.

    “These are not the parishoners.”
    Stormtrooper: “These are not the parishoners.”

  3. I love Eddie Izzard’s routine about monks in brown robes. He says they weren’t chanting, just murming, “Brown… still brown. Spring fashion… brown. F&*(%ing brown…”
    “You’ve got two looks. Hood up, very mysterious, or … hood down, SURPRISE! It’s ME!”

    I wish I had a hooded robe for bad hair days.

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