Dressing Like a King is Not Unobtrusive


Father Dwight again challenges reason:

The priest’s robes are a ceremonial vesture—a uniform of their sacred office. They are meant to effectively obliterate the priest’s personality. They are also, by the way, meant to be unobtrusive. They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress. They are simply to dignify the office of the priest and dignify and beautify the celebration of Mass.

If the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then the priest should dress up for his entrance into the royal court. The robes should therefore be regal in their dignity, their simplicity and their style. As much as possible their beauty should be shown, not by cleverness of design or ornamentation, but through quality materials and fine workmanship.

Why should the priest dress like a king? Because he reminds the whole people of God that they serve Christ the King, and the priest is in persona Christi. Furthermore, they remind the people of God that they too are a chosen people, and a royal priesthood. The priest focuses in his own person and ministry the royal priesthood of the people of God.

The question is why priests still dress in a medieval manner when the church has opened the windows to and come alongside the modern world. Not even Queen Elizabeth dresses like a priest.

Why Should Chaplains Have All the Good Uniforms?

Our southern correspondent sent a story from the Washington Post about the Supreme Court’s justices’ annual photo shoot. Robin Givhan, the staff writer, took particular notice of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to adorn her black robe with “a white lace frill that flopped down the front of her chest like a hankie she’d tucked into her collar.” This fashion statement contrasted with the new justice, Elena Kagan, who allowed only a “a discreet hint of delicate white fabric peeking out from the top of her robe.”

Givhan goes on to comment on the significance of attire for officials such as justices:

One wishes that the decision to wear basic black had been unanimous. The justices’ unadorned black robes carry with them an air of tradition, dignity, gravitas, as well as humility. It doesn’t matter if a justice is wearing a custom made Turnbull & Asser shirt, a Chanel suit or a tie from Charvet. All of that finery is hidden under their look alike robes. The stark costume reminds them that while they possess great power, it should be wielded with deep humility.

In donning the robes, the justices make a visual promise that they’re leaving personal idiosyncrasies, prejudices and desires outside the courtroom. They have tamped down individual preferences in service to the greater good, the general public . . . the law. The robes acknowledge that the justices have shed distractions in favor of objectivity, fairness and a common, high minded purpose. . . . The robe helps to ward off hubris and self importance. Indeed, wouldn’t we be perturbed if a justice decided that a little rhinestone trim along the sleeves would be quite nice? Or what if a justice decided that a mink collar would be quite lovely in the winter?

Does not the same logic, as our southern correspondent’s email asked, apply to pastors? Isn’t the nature of their work to get out of the way and let the word and Spirit do the work? And wouldn’t a robe that hid personal idiosyncrasies of sartorial preference and cultural breeding be a good way to remind the pastor that his work is not finally about him, his taste, or his social standing?

As Givhan concludes, “Clothes have a lot to say about who we are. They are our personal riffs on our place in the world. And those flourishes of style are important and meaningful.” But such statements have “no place on the Supreme Court.” If the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments occupies an even higher purpose than interpreting the meaning of the nation’s laws, a robe would appear to be even more fitting for ministers than the business suit (not to mention the polo or faded t-shirt).