The Big Black Dress

December 26, 2007 Length: 13:30

Kh. Krista gives a helpful perspective on current cassock usage in the US and the modern history of clerical dress in America since the 1950s.





Hello! And welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. My topic for today is “The Big Black Dress: The History and Usage of the Cassock in Eastern Orthodoxy”.

To begin with, there are two basic garments that fall under the heading “Cassock” and since the “anterri” is the older of the two garments, I’d like to start with its common names and history.

The “anterri” or “inner” cassock is known by several names—“podrosnik” in Russian, “embas” in Arabic (although this is not commonly used), and on Mt. Athos, “zostiko”—“zoe” for life and “sticho” for robe, the “life robe”, the robe in which you live.

The cassock is worn by bishops, priests, deacons, monastics, and anyone serving behind the altar during Divine Liturgy. In some parishes, it is also worn by tonsured readers. There are two “main” styles: the Greek “anterri” with its cross-over fronts and distinctive decorative stitching and braid, and the Russian “podrosnik” with its closer-fit and button tabs. On a side note—in general, the fit of most Russian cassocks and vestments are closer-fitting whereas Greek-style cassocks and vestments are more loose and roomy-fitting which creates the more tailored look of Russian garments and the more flowing look of Greek garments. This might come about from Russia being a cold climate and tailors utilizing heavy, non-draping fabrics for warmth and Greece being warmer and necessitating lighter, more flowing garments for maximum breathability and comfort.

But, back to the cassock…

The cassock is most likely derived from the “tunic”, a basic garment, similar to a shift or long T-shaped garment worn by almost everyone from Roman senators to field laborers. Tunics could be long or short, depending on status or use. For example, long, flowing tunics could be worn under garments like the toga, but shorter tunics coming to the knee would have been worn by soldiers under their amour or farmers when tending their fields. Length aside, the tunic would have most often been white or undyed in color.

Now, when we hear “white” today, we tend to think of bright, clean white, a “bleached” white, but historically, white often just meant undyed, which would encompass the colors we call beige, tan, taupe, ochre, ivory. Dyeing fabrics a particular color was a time-consuming, expensive process and you wouldn’t have bothered to color a garment that was often worn under other garments or you wouldn’t have been able to afford the luxury of dyeing.

White would have been the “simplest” of colors since it required no effort and St. Clement of Alexandria says, “For men of hearts pure and uncontaminated, a white and simple garb is most fitting.” It is imperative when studying Orthodox liturgical vesture to keep in mind that the advent of synthetic dyes in the 1860s completely transformed our approach to colors and clothing, dramatically altering our expectations of what colors fabrics and garments could be.

Since tunics, and eventually cassocks, were the equivalent of a modern shirt, they were simply left the color of the fiber itself. During the Roman Empire and into the Byzantine Empire, the fabric would have been most commonly either linen or wool. From my own experience, I can completely understand the use of wool—it’s still the most popular fabric for cassocks due to its breathability, stain-resistance, and durability. As for sewing, it’s one of the most responsive and satisfying textiles to work with.

Around the 3rd century, vestments began to be standardized and organized in the Orthodox Church and the next logical step in garment evolution would be for the clergy to began wearing not only specific garments to serve Liturgy in, but to standardize their “street wear” as well. It is interesting to note that every ancient church such as the Coptic church, the Armenian church, and even the Catholic church wears some form of the cassock which points to an early development of the garment.

And, most enlightening of all, Christian monks in every part of the world wear the cassock, again emphasizing the very early beginning of its use. If you look at iconography of monastics, they are often wearing a tunic the color of which is called in Greek “sacaree”, or “sugar-colored” since untreated sugar is a light caramel color. If you’re curious about this color, just grab a packet of Sugar in the Raw the next time you’re at Starbucks and open it up—that’s the color!

Eventually, both practicality and symbology won out, and monastics began wearing darker-colored tunics. Darker colors were more practical because they didn’t show dirt and more symbolic in that darker hues represented penitence and a turning from the world. And in typical fashion in the Orthodox world, secular clergy followed suit, exchanging their light-colored tunics for darker ones. However, I should note that there still is a custom among both Greek and Russian clergy of wearing a light- or white-colored anterria for the 40 days following Pascha. I love this tradition as it reminds me of the origins of the cassock as well as proclaims the Resurrection.

While most everyone has seen a modern cassock, there are some distinctive features to note: most cassocks have reversible fronts, which are convenient if the priest spills wax on his garment—he just quickly unbuttons the tabs and reverses the fronts to cover the stain; the collars usually cross-over, although a mandarin-style collar is common among Greek cassocks; and there is some kind of belt to draw in the waist. Greek-styled cassocks also have distinctive decorative stitching usually combined with braid trim along the fronts and the sleeve cuffs. This stitching is a kind of tailor’s signature with different tailors using different designs for the stitching.

Personally, I use a scallop stitch, but when I was in Greece, I saw other “signatures” such as triangles and zigzags. The cassock is a complicated garment, requiring over several hours to cut out the over 30 pieces and taking upwards of 10 hours to sew. But once completed, it is a distinctively Orthodox garment. My husband was out in his cassock one day, when a guy came up and said, “Nice robe, dude”. I have to concur.

Now, if there’s an inner cassock, then there has to be an “outer” cassock. The outer cassock of the Orthodox Church is the exorasson, also know as “rasso” in Greek, “jibbeh” or “jibbee” in Arabic, and “rhiasa” in Russian. It is worn over the anterri. The easiest way to imagine the relationship of the anterri and exorasson is to think of it as man’s suit—he has his dress shirt, the cassock, and his suit coat, the exorasson. To be properly “dressed”, he wears both.

Bishops, priests, and deacons all wear the exorasson and in some jurisdictions, chanters are blessed to wear the exorasson, but I should note that chanters wear it over street clothes, not over a cassock and they wear it only while they are chanting and at no other time. Monastics also wear it, both male and female, and they usually call it the “rasso”. While the large, flowing sleeves are of a fairly standard width nowadays, historically, the width was an indication of rank, with bishops having the widest sleeves and chanters the narrowest. This still holds true for chanters exorasson sleeves, which are quite a bit narrower than priest’s or deacon’s exorasson sleeves.

The exorasson is a supremely elegant garment with its large, flowing sleeves, and the fronts which “magically” close without any form of closure such as buttons or ties. In reality, an exorasson is cut in such a way that the front panels are forced to overlap when only the hook-and-eye behind the collar is fastened. It is usually cut long, going to the tops of the shoes or longer. The exorasson is still one of my favorite garments to sew because it is so beautiful and shows off fabric so well.

While the exorasson has elements of very ancient garments like the kimono and does show some Persian and Oriental influence, it doesn’t come to Orthodoxy until much later than the cassock. It is identical to the robes worn by Ottoman civil officers and judges and, from this, we can date its appearance in the church’s clerical garments to about the 15-16th century. We can further identify the beginning of its usage because of how late it comes to monastic communities. The “outer garment” used before the exorasson was a simpler version of the “mandyas” that we now see our bishops wear whenever they are presiding at a service, but are not the celebrant.

A moment ago, I mentioned iconography that pictured monastics in their “sacaree” tunics. Look again at these icons and you will see the mandyas—it is the cloak-like garment worn over the tunic, which the monastic often has gathered up in his arms so he has freedom of movement. One of the best icons to see this in is the Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is important to note that the mandyas ranges in colors from dark browns to deep burgundies to black, so again, we see a non-standard approach to color due to the availability of natural dyestuffs—one monk could have been from a village that had a plant that produced an inexpensive, deep red dye, another monk could be from yet another village where a brown color was the cheapest, most common dyestuff. St. Germanus, appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 715, refers to the mandyas as being “open and simple” of the “winged speed of the angels.” Another theory is that it mystically commemorates the crimson robe of scorn thrown around the shoulders of our Saviour by the soldiers. The overarching symbology of a mandyas, however, is that of a cocoon, being fastened at the neck and the hem, keeping the monk self-contained and protected against the assaults of the enemy.

In modern times, the mandyas is still is use in monastic communities. On Mt. Athos, the ecclesiarch still wears the mandyas to sound the simandrone and for the censings with the hand censer during church services. Some Russian monks still wear the mandyas and some abbots of monasteries as well.

On the other hand, the exorasson started out as a solely episcopal garment during the Ottoman Empire and then trickled down through the ranks. This is evidenced by the fact that, historically, in the Russian tradition, it was not assumed that the deacon would automatically wear the exorasson, but rather that he had to have a blessing to do so. Conversely, it is interesting to note that the mandyas takes the opposite path—starting out as a simple, monastic garment and moving up through the ranks to now be worn solely by bishops.

Throughout its history, the exorasson has appeared to have more flexibility in its usage than the cassock or the mandyas. Even now, we have a relatively new version of the exorasson: the kontorasson. Since it became expected practice in Greece for clergy to appear in public wearing both the anterri and the exorasson (again, think about a man formally dressed in his shirt and suit coat), there was a need for practicality since wearing two, long, flowing black garments can be rather uncomfortable in a warm climate. Over time, the exorasson worn for “street wear” began to be shortened, until it only came the to waist, while still retaining the large flowing sleeves and then eventually, the sleeves were left off, creating a large, garment that looks just like a long vest. It reminds me of the old saying, “You say tomato, I say tomahtoe.” It looks like a vest, but when worn with the anterri, it is just as if the priest or deacon is wearing an exorasson.

Due to the fact that the kontorasson is directly derived from the exorasson and that the exorasson is a garment that is a symbol of office, meaning that only a bishop, priest, or deacon can wear it, than it follows that only clergy should wear the kontorasson. Although I have seen it done, it is not appropriate for subdeacons, readers, or seminarians to wear the kontorasson. Now I know I sound like a bit of a snob for saying this, but I have a very practical reason—as we reclaim our traditional clerical garments in America, it is important that they retain their historical meaning to emphasize that they are there for a specific purpose—to identify clergy from laity. Think how confusing it would be if subdeacons, readers, and clergy all wore the cassock and kontorasson on the street—who would you know to get a blessing from? The way uniforms work is that only certain people wear them! This is also another illustration of why it is so important to understand where our clerical garments originated.

In my own tailoring work, I am seeing clergy make a decided move away from a clerical shirt worn with a black suit coat towards the cassocks worn with the exorassa (or kontorassa), which I am very excited about as I fully support our reclaiming our traditional clerical attire with all of its beautiful history and meaning. I will discuss this at more length in my next podcast, “The Power of the Cassock”.