“Ankle-length garment” is the literal meaning of the corresponding Latin term.
God Himself legislated in the Old Law that His priests should wear a special dress to distinguish them. And modern society prescribes that those who hold official positions, such as the army or the police, should be recognizable. And for that purpose they wear special uniforms.
The same applies to priests. The special dress of the priests enables him to be recognized as an official representative of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, who would dare to approach a stranger and request confession without having some assurance that he is truly a minister of the Church?
Monks early adopters of religious garments
The black cassock, or soutane, is worn today by the secular clergy, as well as certain societies of apostolic life and religious orders. Its form, length, color and accessories (such as the cincture) grew organically throughout the centuries. In the early centuries of Christianity no distinctive dress was adopted by ecclesiastics. The first ones to adopt religious garments were monks, but nothing indicates that any similar distinction applied to the clergy at large.
Forbidden to wear rich clothing and bright colors
The Trullan Council, however, in 691 prescribed that all who were enrolled among the clergy should use at all times the robes appointed for those of their profession, under pain of excommunication for a week. Furthermore from the 8th century onwards we find everywhere decrees passed to restrain clerics from wearing rich dresses, bright colors and extravagant ornaments.
“In the 9th century priests in Metz were enjoined to wear their stoles always, as an indication of their priesthood. At the present day this practice still exists, but is peculiar to the Holy Father alone.”
Distinction with the laity
At Metz, in 888, the laity were forbidden to wear the copes (‘cappas’) belonging to the clergy, while in another synod priests were enjoined to wear their stoles always, as an indication of their priesthood. At the present day this practice still exists, but is peculiar to the Holy Father alone.
The first cassock
The proper dress of the medieval clergy was therefore the ‘vestis talaris’, and over this priests were bidden to wear the ‘cappa clausa’. The former of these must have been a sort of cassock, but made like a tunic, i.e. not opening, and buttoning down the front.
Commanded by the church
The modern and more centralized legislation regarding clerical garments may be considered to begin with a constitution of Sixtus V in 1589, insisting under the severest penalties that all clerics, even those in minor orders, should uniformly wear the ‘vestis talaris’ and go tonsured. Offenders were to lose all title to their financial benefices or any other emolument which they held.
“In 1708 Rome forbade clerics to wear a wig, nor exhibit any eccentricities.”
Simple, dark in color and with cincture
Another edict issued under Urban VIII, in 1624, goes into greater detail. It directed that the cassock should be confined with a cincture, and that the cloak worn over it should normally, like the cassock, fall as low as the ankles. The under-dress, the hose included, should be modest, and dark in color.
All embroidery and lace upon collar or cuffs was forbidden as well. And the hat was to be of an approved shape and a simple cord could be its only ornament.
Another important Roman decree, issued in 1708, forbade clerics to wear a wig covering any part of the forehead or ears and, while admitting the use of shorter garments when on a journey, required such garments in all cases to extend below the knees and to exhibit no eccentricities, such as large buttons and huge pockets.
In 1725 Pope Benedict XIII made the wearing of lay costume by an ecclesiastic an offense of the most serious kind, which not only, according to the Bull of Pope Sixtus V, entailed the forfeiture of all monetary benefits, but denied absolution to those delinquents who did not spontaneously surrender their benefices if they had been guilty of this offense.
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