The Power of the Cassock

January 8, 2008 Length: 14:27

In this episode Kh. Krista gives us some history on the use of the cassock and shares her opinion on how it should be used today.





Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Today’s podcast is entitled “The Power of the Cassock” and in it, I’d like to cover some of the current usages of clerical garments in Orthodoxy in the United States. For today’s podcast, when I mention clerical garments, I am referring to the inner and outer cassock, the “anterri” and “exorasson”, which includes the “kontorasson” or clergy vest.

I’ve been sewing these garments for over 14 years and while vestments have their gorgeous colors and eye-catching designs, my love affair with Orthodox liturgical vesture was cemented with the cassocks. There was something so elegant, so understated, yet so complex about these garments that just fascinated me when I began learning how to construct them. Plus, they were so difficult! It took me weeks of 12-hour days to learn how to sew a cassock and months of constant repetition to perfect the complicated and myriad details. But when I gave the hem its final pressing, hung up the garment on a hook and stood back, oh, the satisfaction. This was a garment with no equal! And when I would see a seminarian or a priest in his cassock in church, I felt a deep sense of pride—not simply because it was my own work, but because I felt that I was contributing in a small way to the continuation of a dignified clerical garment tradition.

At the time I began sewing these garments, they were often considered by many clergy “for church use only”; in other words, if a priest did a house blessing or went to the hospital to visit a sick parishioner, he wore the black shirt with white tab collar, called a “clergy shirt”, with a black suit coat. This was considered the “uniform” for clergymen in the US. In most major cities, you could see Roman Catholic or Episcopalian clergymen in the same “uniform”.  The clergy shirt and black suit coat simply meant “minister” or “priest”, the garments themselves did not point to any particular religious affiliation or tradition.

But since that time, there have been two major influences on Orthodox clerical attire that are causing our Orthodox clergymen to return to the cassock as their solely “Orthodox” clerical wear: First, the recent clergy scandals and ensuing lawsuits in the Roman Catholic church have made many clergy loath (rhymes with oaf) to appear in public in any attire that would suggest they were a Roman Catholic priest (this has been of particular concern to married Orthodox clergymen who might be out in public with their children) and Second, a growing traditionalism within Orthodoxy in America. Our clergy now want to look both traditional and distinctly Orthodox, not being mistaken for a priest or minister of a different faith.

I find this trend back toward the cassock quite fascinating, especially from a historical point of view. Clergymen having distinctive dress, garments that would identify them as clergy, was an early development in the Orthodox Church. As I mentioned in my previous podcast, “The Big Black Dress”, the inner cassock, or “anterri” began as a tunic, a basic garment that would have been worn by almost every person with ancient society. In the early church, especially during the persecutions, it wasn’t necessarily desirable for a priest to be identified as such, and this, combined with the fact that the church was still quite “new” and hadn’t standardized details like clerical attire, meant that most clergymen went about just as everyone else did. However, in the 4th century, there were three major historical events that precipitated the use of specific garments by the clergy:

The first was the conquest of the city of Rome by barbarian tribes. After the conquest, the fashion in Rome changed as frequently happens in garment history. One country invades another and the invader’s style of dress is adopted by the occupied country over time. Roman citizens who had worn long robes to emphasize their position in society as “men of contemplation” now laid aside the cumbersome philosopher’s robes for the shorter tunics of the barbarians who prized their garments as those befitting “men of action”. And fashion for the common man followed suit—soon the shorter tunics were standard among all levels of society and the traditional Roman garments such as the toga began to be laid aside, except for ceremonial wear. To quote from the Rev. George Tyach, a 19th-century writer on ecclesiastical dress, “The bustling, practical North had imposed upon the South a costume fitted for war and the chase, for journeys and all active exercise, but lacking those marks of repose and of almost sovereign dignity, which even the poorest Roman citizen had formerly claimed by virtue of his citizenship.” It was at this point in time, that there begins to be a separate dress code for the clergy; again, in Tyach’s words, “While all the world changed its fashion, the Church maintained her ancient usages.” Clergymen didn’t adopt the new, shorter tunics, but rather continued to wear longer garments. This was the “fork in the road” of clerical garment history.

The second event was the advent of monasticism. Suddenly, there were droves of men and women leaving for the desert, all wearing a similar style of simplistic dress. The goal was clothing the body in a practical and repentant method, no longer caring about fashion or who was wearing what. Over time, the white or undyed tunic was replaced by darker fabrics, out of both practicality and because darker colors were associated with repentance and turning from the world. “Secular” clergymen, those living in the world and serving parishes, would have undoubtedly been influenced by monastics as has happened in every age since.

The third event was the movement of the center of ancient “Graeco-Roman” culture from its long-held position in the city of Rome to the new “Rome”, Constantinople. Constantinople, a decidedly “Eastern” city, sat along some of the ancient world’s most important trade routes, bringing goods from the Orient and Persia, along with their various stylistic influences. The Orient and Persia both had traditions of long, flowing robes and I can imagine standing on a street corner in 4th-century Constantinople with men and women from various cities and countries walking by in their long, ornate robes. And, keep in mind, that textiles were a highly-prized commodity in the ancient world—time-consuming and expensive to produce.

So, these three influences—a holding onto older garment styles as a reaction to “barbarian” dress, the influence of monastic conservatism, and the general cultural shift towards a more “Eastern” expression all came about within decades of each other, forever affecting how Orthodox clergymen would dress.

Now this might seem like a lot of dry history, but it has a direct bearing on our current state of clerical attire in 21st-century America. I am frequently asked what my personal opinion is regarding clerical dress and while I would have to respond that I am completely in favor of Orthodox clergymen wearing the inner and outer cassock for daily wear and abandoning the clergy shirt forever, it is only practical that there needs to be a transition period. To help explain why, let me go back in time a few decades:

When Orthodoxy was becoming well-established in America, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, many priests came from Orthodox lands and settled in America. In their home countries, priests wore the cassock and did not cut their hair or beard. This was the “uniform” of Orthodox clergymen and in their home lands, someone thus attired was immediately identified. No one was asking, “Is that the mailman or the butcher?”. The cassock commanded respect.

But when these same priests came to America, there was no American cultural acceptance of long hair, long beards, or men wearing what looked at best like long robes and at worst, dresses. Orthodox priestly attire was viewed as weird and rather unkempt. This was the 1950s and 60s—when men wore suits to the office, women wore dresses to do the housekeeping, everyone was groomed to within an inch of their lives and “casual Fridays” were unheard of. This was a country that had just survived World War II and all of its horrors and they wanted a picture-perfect, pretty world, something that would reassure them that everything was A-OK. By American standards, clergymen were expected to dress like professionals, well-attired in a respectful suit. Suddenly, the cassock not only did NOT command respect, it invited ridicule and suspicion. Who were these long-haired hippies?

So many of the bishops of the day required that their clergy adapt and wear the clergy shirt with suit coat as all other clergymen in the US did. Their decision was one made with regard to the respect and dignity of the Church. The bishops didn’t suddenly think that Orthodox attire needed “updating” and, “Boy, wouldn’t a new shirt be spiffy?!”. Rather, they wanted this new country to respect the Orthodox Church and be able to see her inherent dignity and her traditions and theology without the distraction of strange-looking clothes.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I think the bishops were correct to be concerned about the dignity of the Church. Frankly, I am dismayed by the judgmental attitude I occasionally encounter when dealing with this issue. Those still wearing the clergy shirt and suit coat think the cassock is “for church use only” and shouldn’t be worn on the street and those wearing only the cassock think the clergy shirt and suit coat non-traditional. We have to understand that we are in a unique time of transition and there must be understanding and mercy on all sides. Foremost in our minds should be our gratitude towards the clergy who brought Orthodoxy to America and fostered it, all the while wearing their clergy suits. It must have been very difficult for those first generations of priests, giving up their cassocks, cutting their hair, shaving their beards, and having to wear clothes that they were completely unfamiliar with. But, they did it with grace and humility, knowing that the dignity of the Church was of far greater moment than their personal comfort.

It is in this same spirit of grace and humility that I now encourage the clergy to take up the daily use of the cassock. It is our distinctly Orthodox garment and has a long and venerable history. And, nowadays, America is a very different place with many more cultures and influences in our society. Most Americans are simply curious when they see an Orthodox priest in his cassock and cross—they’re not suspicious, they’re just not sure what kind of minister this person is. This is a great opportunity for evangelizing as the cassock opens a door that in previous decades it slammed shut. I’ve frequently heard people ask my husband, “So, what kind of minister are you?” What better opening for presenting Orthodoxy?

So, what would my “perfect” Orthodox clerical garment world look like? Well, first I would make it imperative that the priest wear a cross with his cassock, even a simple wooden cross, to make absolutely clear that he is a follower of Christ. Second, I would have the cassock worn in public to be well-made and in good repair. Now, this is the tailor talking here, but I am disappointed when I see an Orthodox clergyman “in the world”, that is, somewhere in public, in a tattered cassock. As in all Orthodox liturgical garments, I believe we should take our cue from monastics and a monk or nun would never dream of leaving the monastery without being appropriately attired in their best garments. To do otherwise would appear thoughtless and disrespectful. A work cassock is another thing—if you’re in your garden, then I don’t expect to see you in a pristine anterri, for that matter, your old tshirt and jeans wouldn’t faze me, after all, the lawn must be mowed! But if I meet you on the street, I want to see you dressed in a garment befitting the dignity and beauty of the Orthodox Church. In a formal setting, I would expect to see a priest or deacon wearing either an exorasson or the abbreviated version of the exorasson, the kontorasson, over the cassock.

It is good to remember that the cassock, or exorasson, or kontorasson are not indicative of the man, but the office. These garments are uniforms, not individualist expressions, and as such, we need to take into consideration the dignity of the office they represent. This is why I advocate a well-made and well-cared-for cassock to be worn in public; not because I’m a snob, but because I believe the garment conveys the dignity and vocation of the priesthood. This is also why the most humble monk on Mt. Athos will keep his best anterri in tip-top shape and wear it to Sunday Liturgy, even though his daily cassock may be in tatters. 

There is a Greek Orthodox women’s monastery about two hours from my home and I occasionally visit and help the sisters with a little bit of their sewing work. On one of my visits, the Gerontissa, the Abbess allowed me to examine her rasso. It was a beautiful garment and very well-made, though obviously quite old.  As I was working on it, she told me that it was her original rasso and that she had sewn it herself. I was shocked—this garment was over 40 years old and was in pristine condition. She had obviously cared for it with attention and detail. She understood inherently that the garment didn’t reflect her personality or the level of her piety, but rather, it stood as a shining example of the glory of monasticism.

So, in conclusion, I would encourage the clergy of the US to take up the cassock once again, rejoining a long and dignified tradition.