*** boys choir costumes: England

English Boy Choir Costumes

English choirs
Figure 1.--English boy choirs are primarily associated with the Anglican cathedrals located throughout the country, many of which have elementary and secondary schools. Most of these choirs perform in liturgical costumes. The Westminister Cathedral Choir pictured here wears Eton collars rather than the ruffled collars worn by most other Church of England choirs with their robes.

Many countries of Western and Central Europe have a long tradition of church boys' choirs dating back to the midevil era. One of the longest traditions is that of the English boy choirs. While the English cathedral choir is a tradition imported by the early church fathers, the realtive stability in England has mean that the English boy cathedral choirs are some of the oldest in Europe. Historical references date from the end of the 6th century AD. English boy choirs often perform in liturgical choir robes. This is due to their association with the Anglican cathedrals and their primary purpose of providing choral music for church services. Hector Berlioz insisted that 'Music is the very soul of a great church.' And after hearing choristers singing in one of England's great cathedrals, few will disagree.


The English boy choirs were organized to supply needed musical accompaniment to early church services at monestaries and important English churches. Tradition was adopted from practices in Rome. The earliest references we note come from the end of the 6th century. The history of modern British education begins with these early boy choirs and schools set up for the boys. Many of Britain's prestigious public schools can trace their history to the foundation of these early choir schools. Some historians report that since the 15th century, England has had a special liking for boys' voices. English muscians have likened the sound as "disembodied". The entire vocal heritage stems from this attraction: from John Taverner to Benjamin Britten. The daily ritual pursued within the Church has been strictly observed with regard to tradition. The wishes of the Monarchs who founded the great Cathedral universities and choirs have thus been respected. One choir master indicates, he likes to think that, whenever we sing a "Magnificat" or a "Nunc Dimittis", we honour the memory of Henry VI, the solitary king, who, in order to get closer to us, had some of England's most beautiful colleges built. The educational program in England was evidence of the union between State and Church, represented by the King. In all monastic and cathedral colleges song became the basis of religious instruction and the sacred word. The Reformation, the consequence of Henry VIII's breakaway from Rome, was to see the closure of all monasteries, some of which were centres of Roman liturgical and musical traditions. Composers were invited to conform to the new and more refined style requirements. For instance, the use of the organ was banned and the number of choristers reduced. "Thou madest Man lower than the angels: to crown him with glory and worship. Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet." Many of the oldest active choirs in Europe are currently English choirs. This is because of England's relatively stable history--at least in comparison to continental Europe. Since their foundation in about the 15th century, several choirs survived even the Civil War and have an unbroken history spanning centuries. Few European choirs, with the exception of the Austrians and Germans, have foundations dating back even a few decades.


The original English boy choirs were founded by the Catholic church. Most of the current choirs are Anglican, some founded in the 16th century. There are also a few Catholic choirs in England, but none trace their ancestry to the medevil Catholic choirs. Most of the modern English choirs are associated with the the Anglican Church. I do not know of any well-known secular boy choirs in England, but believe a few now exist and are becoming an increasingly important part of the English boy choir tradition.

Choir Costumes

English boy choirs often perform in liturgical choir robes. This is due to their association with the Anglican cathedrals and their primary purpose of providing choral music for church services. The different choirs wear a variety of different collars with their robes, ranging from 19th century Eton collars to 16th century ruffled collar. There is no definitive rule and individual churches decide for themselves. The ruffled collars seem the most popular in Church of England choirs. Several of the Catholic choirs have chosen Eton collars. The every day uniforms worn by British cathedral choirs is the school uniform of the various public (private) schools to which the choir is attached. This has mean caps, blazers, ties, short trousers, and kneesocks. In recent years the choirs have mostly dropped the caps and the boys now mostly wear long pants.

Choral Music

Hector Berlioz insisted that 'Music is the very soul of a great church'. And after hearing choristers singing in one of England's great cathedrals, few will disagree.

Choir Types

There are several different types of boy choirs that have existed in England. Some have since disappeared and others continue to operate, although they are no longer an exclusively boy domaine. The first boy choirs in England were presumably monestary choirs. Here early schools were founded to train novices and their voives added to relgious ceremonies. These choirs disappeared, however, when King Henry VIII closed the monestaries in the 16th century. There were also cathedral choirs which disappeared during the Reformation and Civil War, but were revived in the 18th century. University choirs were similar to the catedral choirs as the Church plazyed a key role in the foundation and operation of medieval universities. We know less about the small number of royal choirs. There were also royal choirs. Some what forgotten today is the strong tradition of parish church boy choirs.

Winchester Cathedral Choir
Figure 2.--Most English boy church choir perform in robes with ruffled collars, like the Winchester Catheldral Choir pictured here.

Individual Cathedral Choirs

Most of the attention in England is given to a small number of very well known choirs--primarily the ones associated with a the major Anglican cathedrals. There are also quite a number of choirs located around the country, many associated with various private preparatory schools and individual churches. Some of these choirs have reached very high standards of choral music, often placing very well in competitions held periodically. They tend to wear the traditional school boy blazers. There is, however some variation. One choir, for example, wore a comfortable uniform of cord jackets and shorts. Some information is available on these individual English boy cathedral choirs. Some of the cahedrals such as Norwich have associated schools. The world famous choir at Canterbury has been singing daily office in its present form since 1542--the date of the reformed Cathedral Foundation under Henry VIII. We have not yet reserched the Lincoln Cathedral choir. We do have one image of the choir in their robes. Lichfield Cathedral is located just 27 kilometers north of Birmingham. A HBC reader writes, "I am writing to ask if you know of this choir. Some time ago I heard a recording of the boys and would very much like to get a copy if possible." Unfortunately, this is not a choir thatHBC has infornation on yet. St John's College, Cambridge, has a noted tradition of choral religious music. The College since the 1670s is known to have had a Choir. St. Paul's Cathedral is the most famous in England. The photograph of St. Paul's standing steafastly as London burned around it under the NAZI blitz is one of the most stiring images of World War II. One weekend in March, 120 or so Friends of Cathedral Music gathered at St Woolos Cathedral. Though a church has stood there for over a thousand years, it reached Cathedral status just 50 years ago. Westminster Abbey Choir School is the only school in Britain exclusively for the education of boy choristers. Winchester Cathedral is another of England's best known cathedrals and one with a highly regarded choir.

Church Choirs

Most of England's important boy and now girl choirs are the famous cathedral choirs. Quite a number of churches, however, organized choirs as well which until the 21st century were mostly boy choirs. These choirs were of varying quality because few churches had the resources to support theior choirs to the same degree of the better funded cathedrals. Here the choirs ofren depened on the choir master. Here the key abilities were first his musical competence and second the aboility to work with boys. As far as we know, chioir nasters until arond the 21st century were all men, which was the generral pattern in the world of classical music. Second, a choir master needed the ability to attract choristers and motivate them for the rather demanding effort of developoing the skills needed for a degree of excellence compoaravle to the cathedral choirs. And at churches, he needed vto do all that without the resources available at the great cathedrals. The pattern at these choirs was a very limited program of parctice and instruction, in contrast to the choral trining effort at the cathedrals. Many churches had choirs which added to religious services, but understandably fell far short of the excellence of the cathedral choirs. As a result, we know very little about these small church choirs.

Royal Services

The Westminster Abbey Choir is involved in a range of royal events, including marriages, coronations, funerals and others. The Choir sung at the funeral of Britain's beloved Queen Mum. Along with the Choir thee were boys participating in different outfits than the Coristets. One of our readers reports that these other boys were also singing. They do not look to be part of the Choir, although we are not sure. I am not sure who these boys are and what costumes that the biys are wearing. Hopfully our British readers will provide some insights here.

Other Important Choirs

While the cathedral choirs are the best known English boy choirs, there are also some very impresive boy choirs that are not maintained by the cathedrals. If it helps, on the above mentioned page you write that the school is the only one in England catering exclusively for choristers. Perhaps the best known here is St. George's Chapel, Windors Kings College at Cambirdge University. A HBC reader mentions the St George's Chapel Choir at Langbury College, Shropshire which draws boys from the Priory Preparatory School. Of course the detinction here is somewhat arbitrary as European universities were largely founded by Church scholars. This there were and continue to be close ties between many universities and the Church.

Individual Church Choirs

The choirs of England's great cathedrals are well known. The boys at these choirs are in many ways professions, receiving choral traing as part of their daily education. Many churches in England also have choirs. While the boys at these choirs do not receive the training of the cathedral choirs, none the less, some have reached a very high standard. The choirs usually perform in robes, but do not generally have uniforms.

St Mark's

This church choir in a working class district of Stoke on Trent where the uniform was cord brownish cord jacketsd and short pants with grey kneesocks that had colored bands. The younger boys had to earn their uniform, including their shorts, by mastering the music. The uniform was dropped in 1986.

Treblemakers Junior church choirs

A reader tells us about his children's Anglican church choir. The choristers wear ruffs, cassocks, surplices, cuffs ( a wrist ruff) and the senior choristers wear capes. The Treblemakers are Englands largest junior church choirs. [Ebbs]

Individual School Choirs

Many English schools have choirs. This is the case at both single gender and coed schools. Choirs are organized at both private and stat chools. These choirs very greatly in perfotmance ability. Some are casual choirs with the children practing only occassionally. Other schools have more organized choirs where the children make a much more substantial commitment of time. There is also substantial differences in the qulity of the choral training. The choirs normally wear the ordinary school uniform. Here we are primarily talking about school choirs, but there are also choir schools as well.

Choir Movies

Several movies have been made about boys' choirs. Some of the world's most famous boys' choirs are located in England and sponsored by the great country's great cathedrals.Surprisingly given the importance of English choirs, very few English movies have been made about the choirs.

Choir Schools

English choirs are now mostly drawn from schools maintained by cathedrals and Abbeys. Several choirs once had schools speciically for the choir. Now the only such school operated specifically for the choir is the Westminster Abbey Choir School. Running such a school just for the choir is enormously expensive. Since the 1970s, cathedral choir schools were forced to open their doors and become cathedral schools in order bear the cost of educating their choristers. Some of the choir schools that have changed are: St. Pauls Cathedral; St. George's Chapel, Windor; and Kings at Cambirdge University. There are several other cathedral or Abbey schools from which choirs are drawn. Examples here are the Lichfield Cathedral School, Norwich Cathedral School, Salisbury Cathedral School, and others. Several other schools like the Priory Preparatory School, St George's Chapel at Langbury College, Shropshire also support choirs.

Altar Boys

A reader asks how you tell the difference between altar boys and choir boys in indivifual portraits. We are not sure about this, but have some deas. We don't think that there is any real way of telling definatively. I think on these individual portraits, the boys are more ikely to be an altar boy. Also choir boys are more likely to have some special item like a ruff adopted by the choir. Boys wearing basic robes like a surplice and cassock are most likely to be altar boys. The location can also be a hint. A chorister would be most liked to be photographed in a cathedral city.


Ebbs, Chris. irector of the Treblemakers Junior church choirs. E-mail message, April 8, 2005.


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Created: November 2, 1998
Last updated: 3:55 PM 3/19/2020