July 14, 2013

Clerical Dress in the City of Rome in the 19th Century

NLM: Wearing an identifiable form of clerical dress has always been prescribed by the Church and, today, the wearing of the cassock at all times has become a symbol of strong priestly identity and attachment to tradition -- particularly in the light of the abandonment of clerical dress altogether by many since the time of the Council.

It is interesting to note, however, that the use the cassock, originally a late Roman, medieval magistrate’s garment, has seen an evolution in the past 150 years up to the present day; an evolution which many might find surprising. From the point of view of history, many of us may not be aware that a little more than a century ago the cassock was used only within liturgical, ceremonial or courtly contexts, and was not worn in day to day clerical life. Day to day usage dates only from the turn of the 19th century following from the French usage since the time of the 1789 revolution. Ironically then, the day to day usage which is today considered such a strong symbol of tradition was at one time considered quite differently.

It is important to state from the outset that the intent of this article is not to disparage the use of the cassock as we see it today. Instead, its purpose is simply to offer a historical consideration, illustrating the traditional, pre-late 19th century logic of having liturgical and ceremonial dress distinct from every day clerical dress, attempting to describe what was worn by the clergy previous to the change of dress in late 19th century, as shown from a set of 1860-1880 photographs of Roman society, and from contemporary prints and paintings.