The cappa nigra (above) is the traditional
outerwear worn with a cassock. The cassock overcoat
(below) is a more modern option and is sometimes called a
the Italian word for “Greek”, because it reminded Roman
clergy of the long black overcoat worn by Eastern priests.
Vintage Clerical Attire
An illustration of
Victorian High Church
Anglican clergy wearing various types of formal attire.
A reader photographed this picture hanging in
Shepard and Woodward, a gentleman's clothing shop in Oxford.
Clerical Formal Attire
Discussing the clerical
equivalent to white tie or black tie is a little misleading as
ceremonial court, academic and clerical attire supersede any type of
formal civilian attire. However, at occasions held outside of
courts, convocation halls and cathedrals, representatives of
royalty, academia and the church must adapt to civilian dress codes.
While the former two simply adopt the white-tie or black-tie
ensemble that’s called for, clerics of various faiths often dress in
The traditional formal
attire for non-liturgical occasions consists of a cassock (black
robe) dressed up with a ferraiolone which is a light-weight
ankle-length cape intended to be worn indoors. (Note that this
vestment is often referred to as a ferraiolo although technically
the latter is shorter and used for less formal occasions.) The
color and fabric of the ferraiolone is determined by the rank of the
cleric and can be scarlet watered silk, purple silk, black silk or
This outfit is officially
classified as Pian dress (or abito piano in
Italian) and is appropriate for occasions such as a
papal audience, a state dinner, the acceptance of personal honors,
parades, press conferences, banquets, or any other event that would
call for White Tie or Black Tie.
For outerwear the black cape
(cappa nigra) aka choir cape (cappa choralis) is most traditional.
It is a long black woolen cloak fastened with a clasp at the
neck and often has a hood.
Cardinals and bishops may also wear a black plush hat or, less
formally, a biretta.
In actual practice, the
cassock and especially the ferraiolone have become much less common and no particular formal attire has appeared
to replace them. The dressiest alternative is a clerical vest
incorporating a Roman collar known as a gilet [zhee lay] worn with a
collarless French cuff shirt and a black suit or
tuxedo. Dress versions of these vests button up the front, are available in various black materials
and can be backless or full-back. The finest are tailor made. They are sometimes known as a
rabat but that term is not as precise as it also often applied to a
simple black dickie attached to a clerical collar.
A less traditional version
of the cappa nigra is the cassock overcoat known as a douilette or
as a greca.
It is black, double-breasted,
has a plain or velvet collar and is of slightly longer length than
the cassock so as to entirely cover it.
If a cassock is not worn then a normal length black overcoat
Although the Church of
England does not stipulate how clergy should dress outside of
church, Father Hughes of All Hallows church in Twickenham informs the Guide
that Anglican clergy follow traditions similar to Roman Catholic
attire consists of the distinctive clerical collar and a
black or dark suit over a black or dark shirt
if a dinner suit is worn then the jacket should be black and usually has
peaked lapels but without silk facings.
a gilet can be worn with a collarless white shirt with double
as with Catholic clergy, for outerwear a cappa nigra or a cassock overcoat is appropriate or, if a
cassock is not worn, a normal length black overcoat
Unique to Anglican clergy is
the clerical version of the Victorian frock coat which fastens by a
single button below the neck and has a fitted collar rather than
lapels. Like the
civilian frock coat of old, this indoor garment is worn for formal day
Also of note is that while
the Anglican clerical collar for daily wear is often the slip-on or tunnel variety,
collar for formal occasions are usually either “full” aka
“Roman” style or they are “tonsure” style.
The first style exposes the white collar band in its entirety
while the second shows only the top of the band except at the throat
where the full width is exposed.
(a definitive resource that quotes Church law extensively),
Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church: According to Roman
(no longer online),
and correspondence with various clergy.
Catholic bishop wearing a traditional ferraiolone and
cassock with a sash known as a band cincture or fascia.
A gilet takes its name from the French
word for waistcoat. For formal occasions it is worn with a
collarless shirt with French cuffs.
Author and commentator Fr. Jonathan Morris wearing a rabat (clerical dickie) with
a double-breasted black
Anglican frock for formal day wear.