Catholic Boys' Vestments

Figure 1.--

When I was a student at a Catholic parish elementary school, back in Rhode Island in the late 1940s and early '50s, I was an altar-boy, and my best friend Brian was a choir-boy. I also studied to be a priest at a seminary.

Choir Vestments

The Catholic Church does not allow girls to be altar-servers and likewise there were no women or girls in the parish choir. There were boys for the soprano and alto parts and men for tenor and bass. One HBC reader rembers the vestments worn by one choir. All the choir members wore floor-length red cassocks in the Roman style--that is, with buttons from the collar to the hem. Over the cassock they wore white surplices with square-yoked necklines; the surplices were mid-thigh length and had wide full sleeves. In addition to the cassock and surplice the boys (but not the men) wore stiff white starched linen (later some kind of plastic/cloth composite) collars and large red satin bows at the throat.

Altar Boy Vestments

Costume for the altar-boys during my first few years was a black floor-length Roman-style cassock with white surplice. Later on, a white linen collar was added with a large black satin bow. The altar-boys looked just like the choir-boys, excep in black/white instead of red/white. Choir and altar-boy costume among Catholics varied widely from parish to parish. I understand that there is a similar variety of choir and altar-server costume among Anglicans/Episcoplians. For instance, in some parishes the altar boys wore white albs with cowls (the cowls are rarely worn on the head; they are simply draped over the shoulders as decorative), wooden crosses on a cord around the neck, and a rope cincture in the color prescribed for the priest's vestments that day. When I was an altar server, athletic footwear and jeans were verboten. You had to wear dress shoes, generally black, with dark socks and dark trousers. I imagine the rule was the same for choir members. The age of alter boys is set by the age of the First Communion. Altar boys have to have had only a first communion for those solemn duties, whereas a confirmation is when you become an adult in the eyes of the church. I am not sure if the age is a set limit, or if it per parish, but I do know that altar boys were rarely over the age of 16. The robes worn by Roman Catholic altar boys are probably most familiar to Americans. The Roman Catholics are, however, not the only church which has altar boys. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant Churches also have altar boys which wear ecclesiastical robes.


By the time the collar and bow was added for the altar-boys, I had graduated from the 9th grade, and gone on to high school at the diocesan seminary. It was my intention at the time to be a priest. For all liturgical functions all the seminarians, whether in high school or college, wore the black cassock and white surplice. High school students as well as college freshmen and sophomores wore jacket and necktie to classes. College juniors and seniors (known among us collectively as 'philosophers') dressed like priests full time; they wore black cassocks in one of three styles current at the time: Roman-style (with buttons full length in front) with or without a wide waist sash; Jesuit-style (with right panel wrapping over the left and buttons on the right from shoulder to waist) with a narrow sash; or semi-Jesuit-style (right wrapping over left - but not so far as the Jesuit style, and without buttons; it had hidden snaps under the wrapped portion) with a wide sash.

I wore the semi-Jesuit-style for dressy ocassions when I became a college junior, a Roman-style for classes and hanging around in. The Roman cassocks I had were cheap, off-the-shelf garments. My semi-Jesuit cassock, on the other hand, was custom tailored by M.H. Gerritts (if I recall properly) in Boston, and it was a beautiful garment. It was made of a heavy men's suiting fabric, hand-fitted and double-lined to the waist. The full skirt had a heavy edging along the inside hem (I don't know what the technical term is for sich an edging) to protect the hem from raveling and to have the cassock hang properly. I wore this cassock for dressy occasions, as I mentioned, because it fit so well and was very flattering. At the time I was slim-waisted (no longer), and the wide sash and long draped-lines of the skirt made me look even slimmer and taller. There was a deep vest pocket, two pockets just below the waist on either hip, tucked inside the skirt, and very deep cuffs on the sleeves which also could be used for pockets.

American seminarins customarily wore black pants and white shirt under the cassock, and my cassock had side slits 7 or 8 inches long just behind the cassock-pockets so that I could put my hands into my pants pockets, too. So I had six pockets just below the waist (2 in the cassock, four in the pants), a vest pocket, a shirt-pocket, and two cuff-pockets. European seminarians, I'm told, went without pants or shirts under the cassock - they just wore their underwear. In hot weather American seminarians would bend the rules a little by not wearing a shirt underneath, just a t-shirt, and by wearing bermuda shorts instead of full-length trousers. Our cassocks had the Roman collar, with the little square cut-out for the starched white shirt-collar to show in front. Collars worn by diocesan seminarians and priests (who belong to no religious order, but are secular clergy responsible to a local bishop) are generally the Roman style. Collar styles of religious orders differ, and many orders have their own 'habits'. Seminarians in religious orders wear the habit of their order, or some variation on it. Franciscan seminarians, for example, wear the brown robe with rope sash, and brown sandals.

I liked sandal as a boy. I still don't much care for standard men's shoes or athletic shoes. I generally wore black leather sandals (instead of the customary black shoes or loafers) with my cassock when I was in the seminary - just because I liked to. The other seminarians thought it was something of an affectation on my part, and teased me about it. Dr. Scholls made several styles of men's sandals back then and I had a couple of pairs. Most of the other seminarians wore ordianry men's shoes. One other boy in my class had a pair of beautiful black sandals hand-made by the Trappist monks in Spencer Massachusetts. I dearly wanted a pair like his, but I cold never get up there to buy them.

For liturgical services I wore a white surplice over my cassock, and also had a biretta, the black hat with pom-pom that priests use; bishops wear purple ones, cardinals red ones, and the Pope a white one.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: February 16, 2000
Last updated: February 16, 2000