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The cassock, a close-fitting gown buttoning down the front and reaching to the feet, is not a vestment so much as the daily uniform of the Western priest. Today a priest might be seen in regular “street clothing”, or in a shirt or blouse with a Roman collar or solid “unnotched” white band Anglican collar, and in a more formal setting a suit with a clerical shirt or blouse. The color is usually black although it may be ivory or white in tropical climes. This is his/her normal working uniform when he/she is not officiating at a liturgy or performing a sacrament. The cassock derives historically from the tunic that was formerly worn underneath the toga.  The cassock to the left is  summer weight, Roman collared,  and unsashed.  A priest will wear a black sash with this, sometimes fringed on the ends.

The word cassock probably comes from the word “casaque” which means cloak; or cassaca, which means white. In older days, it was known in Latin as vestis talaris.  Cassocks or soutanes are sometimes worn with an elbow-length shoulder capelet which is closed down the front by means of buttons.  This should not be confused with the Roman Catholic clergy garment, the mozzetta . The privilege of wearing the mozzetta belongs properly to no one but the pope, cardinals, exempt abbots, abbots  and some canons.   The piping and sash and buttons of a bishop is a shade of fuschia-red. 

 Soutane- French, alteration (influenced by French sous, under) of obsolete sottane, from Italian sottana, from sotto, under, from Latin subtus, from sub.  A priest’s soutane is easily identifiable by the double-thick, turned back cuffs which add to the life of the garment as the cuff area is usually the first to show wear due to friction against desktops, prie-dieux  and the mensa of the altar.  Some vestment houses line the hem of a good-quality cassock with a stiff fringed facing.  This is humorously called a “crumb-duster”.  Cassocks come in all weights of fabric, depending on the climate or season of the year.

 Cassocks are also seen on choristers and worn with a white neck ruff by very young choristers, and are generally red.   Although the trebles dislike the neck ruffs, and refer to them as “coffee filters”, the effect is quite charming!

Highly recommended reading is the reprint of Herbert Norris’ book, Church Vestments Their Origin and Development by Dover Press and available from Amazon.com used for as little as $9.50  This book is a MUST for every sacristy.

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