Known as cassock, it is an item of Christian clerical clothing used by the clergy of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Reformed churches, among others. Its name comes from the Latin term “Vestis Talaris”, which literally means “Ankle-length garment” and relates to habit traditionally worn by Jewish priests for first, and by christian priests starting from the IV Century.
Also called soutane and available in many kinds and different colours, depending on the level of the wearer, the cassock evolved from the tunic, which in ancient Rome was worn underneath the toga, and from the chiton, worn beneath the himation in ancient Greece. In religious services, it has traditionally been worn underneath vestments. In the West, the cassock is no more largely diffused today, except for religious services; however in many countries it has been normally worn by the clergy until the second half of the 20th century, when it was replaced by a conventional suit, generally black, incorporating a clerical collar.
After the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, the Church continued to refine “who wore what when and how” until about the year 800 when liturgical norms for vesting were basically standardized and would remain so until the renewal following the Second Vatican Council.
In the first centuries of Christianity the clerical garments were similar to the laic ones. After the introduction of short garments as a trend through the common people in the V Century, some local councils started to ban the use of these short tunics to the priests while recommending long, minimal and dark clothes instead. Later, in 1215 during the Lateran Council and in 1312 during the Vienna Council, a universal code was established and some colours and shapes were banned. The main aim of the reform was to control the ‘relaxation’ towards which society – and ‘bad’ priests – seemed to be directioned.
Black became compulsory just in the XV Century and the rule was strictly applied in the following century, under the influence of Saint Charles Borromeo and the Council of Trento. Penalties were instructed for those priests who didn’t respect the garment restrictions.
Reflecting on a garment such as the Vestis Talaris, with all its modifications and history, allows to broaden up our understanding of the power of appearance – and clothing, of course – within the most different areas and chronologies. The meaning the church gave, and probably still gives, to both form and style of dresses is key; clothing, in the cases mentioned, had to visually signal that the identity of the person wearing that particular item was shaped not so much by his own taste, but by his ‘profession’, which again was not to be seen as a profession but as a undeniable choice of life.
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