clergy, clothing, ministry

Frank Answers About Clerical Collars

Question: What about clerical collars for parish pastors? What’s their history and evolution? What are the arguments for wearing them–and not? When are they most appropriate–and not? Does the full band collar (AKA “dog collar”) communicate something different from the tab collar? How about colors or patterns of shirts other than solid black?
We never discussed this in seminary. When I go through the 100-some years of confirmation pictures here in my parish, my predecessors throughout seemed split on wearing clericals or not, and there was no agreement on band versus tab for those who did wear them!

Answer: Clergy attire wasn’t discussed when I was in seminary either in the 1960s, except in pastoral care classes or CPE where the issue of seminarians wearing clerical collars was discussed. Vestments were discussed in liturgy class, but daily clerical attire (which also includes cassocks) doesn’t fall into the category of liturgical vestments. To de-mythicize clerical collars, we need to look at the history of humans wearing collars. And we should realize that until the twentieth century, they were detachable.

Once human beings were standing upright they discovered that they could wear things around their neck. Even indigenous people in warm climes who might wear very little clothing opted to wear necklaces made of beads. Sometimes with one necklace connected to other necklaces wider collars developed. Ancient Egyptian men and women of stature wore fancy collars. Collars have been status symbols through history.

Clothing fashions among ancient Egyptians. (Children wore none until they were older.)

Collars sometimes also served practical purposes in the form of scarves. Short scarlet scarves were part of the uniform of Roman legionnaires. They were worn around the neck and tucked under the breastplate. Since the legions were dispersed over a huge territory from Britain to Syria, scarves were useful in all kinds of weather (providing warmth, collecting sweat). Maybe they also helped to deflect sharp objects.

Uniform of a Roman soldier

Medieval priests wore collars with their albs. They were called amices. Until the invention of cassock-albs ca, 1970, those clergy who wore albs still had to fuss with tying on an amice. Amices sometimes had their own decorative collars sewn on. But basically the amice was a scarf that could keep out the draft or collect sweat.

Putting on a medieval amice.

Lucas Cranach the Elder painted half a dozen portraits of Martin Luther during the reformer’s lifetime, from when he was still an Augustinian friar to when he was, in Luther’s own words, “a fat doctor.” The reformer wore nothing like a clerical collar. As a friar he had a cowl as part of his habit that could provide warmth. As a doctor of theology he wore a heavy doctoral gown with a turned-up collar and a cap. Under his robe he wore a collarless shirt and a tunic.

So we will move on to the ruff. This millstone of a collar developed in the second half of the sixteenth century. It was popularized in the Tudor court.

Queen Elizabeth I

Courtiers and people of stature in Western and Northern Europe, women as well as men, wore the ruff collar. Sometimes these could become very fanciful. A lot of prosperous Dutchmen were painted wearing fancy ruffs.

Portrait of a man with a pleated collar by Frans Hals.

Clergy in northern Europe also wore ruffs, although less ostentatious ones. Priests in the Churches of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland still wear ruffs with their cassocks for formal or ceremonial occasions and over their vestments.

Norwegian priest

The Puritans preferred simpler clothing, but they also wore collars. Here are a seventeenth century Puritan man and woman wearing collars. Puritan ministers wore this type of collar over their clergy gown. The ensemble also shows an eighteenth century clergyman in a wig wearing tabs instead of the wider collar, which had passed out of fashion. Wigs, tabs, and black gowns also became the uniform of English jurists.

Puritan collars and tabs

In the high Baroque period people began wearing wigs. The wigs were often shoulder length, so ruff collars got in the way. So fashion went back to scarves, now called cravats and wrapped around the neck. The  ends could be left hanging.  Some of the ends (tabs) were lacey and fancy.

King Louis XIV of France (the Sun King)

In this portrait of the 18th century Anglican evangelist George Whitfield the preaching tabs have been tied on around his neck. Note that he wore a gown over his cassock, which was common  clerical garb for Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists in Great Britain.

At about the same time that George Whitefield was preaching up a storm in Great Britain and the British North American colonies, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was called as pastor to Pennsylvania Lutheran congregations. He stopped in England and acquired an English preaching gown and tab collar(s) on his journey from Germany to the British North American colonies in 1742.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century wigs went out of fashion, but cravats remained. The English paragon of fashion, Beau Brummel, taught gentlemen how to make a nice bow tie with the tab ends.

Beau Brummel

Clergy also wore white cravats. In this portrait of Swedish Archbishop Johan Olaf Wallin with four other Swedish bishops, done in 1843, we see a combination of cravats and just the tabs worn over an upturned shirt collar. This was a time of changing style in clerical attire, as in men’s attire generally.

Archbishop Wallin and Bishops Franzén, Berzelius, Geijer, and Tegner in 1843.

Priests and bishops of the Church of Sweden and Finland adopted the wearing of tabs (elvens or “elevens”) with their frock coat. This was their “on duty” clerical attire. I bought a Swedish frock coat and several tie-on tabs when I was in Sweden in 1973 from Hans Cavallin (Brother Caesarius), who was at the time wearing the habit of a Lutheran Benedictine monk. It had been his father’s.

Swedish priest from the mid-20th century

In France, Beau Brummel’s competitor in the world of fashion, Alfred Count D’Orsay, popularized wearing a black cravat, and other colors as well. He originated the black tie for formal occasions (a little bow made with the tabs of the cravat).

Count D’Orsay

It may be that his influence rubbed off on the clergy because French priests in the nineteenth century wore black tab collars instead of white.

Portrait of a 19th century French priest

The tabs from the cravat continued to be worn by clergy and jurists with their black gowns even when the cravat was abandoned for detachable starched collars in the 1870s. The most popular kind of detachable collar was the wing tip collar, but there were other styles as well such as the standup detachable collar or a folding over detachable collar that looked like a regular shirt collar. These detachable collars were worn with bow ties or long four-in-hand ties.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with a bow tie and his uncle King Edward VII of Great Britain with a four-in-hand tie, both with the same wing tip collar.

German pastors wore the wing tip collar with their knee-length frock coats or simply white ties in their everyday dress.

The Rt. Rev. Dr.  Otto Dibelius, a hero of the cold war, Bishop of the Church of Berlin-Brandenburg that straddled East and West Berlin.

The tabs or beffchen were worn by German pastors with their preaching gown as vestments.

A German Lutheran pastor confirming youth

The bow ties and four-in-hand ties worn by men as a replacement of the cravat tabs didn’t work for clergy who wore cassocks and frock coats. The starched detachable collar enabled the same few collars to be worn with several white shirts. (My father had a wing tip collar that he kept in his dresser drawer, although these were no longer worn after World War II.) All detachable collars were affixed to the shirt in the back as well as the front with brass or silver buttons. Most men had several detachable collars that they could wear with various shirts (usually white). When Roman Catholic priests wore plain collars without the wing tips or an opening in the front, it only looked like it was being worn backwards. It fastened the same as the other detachable collars.

Roman Catholic seminarians wearing cassock with plain “dog collar”

Anglicans and Scots Presbyterians took to wearing the Roman “dog collar” with their cassocks.

Geneva gown worn by a Scots Presbyterian minister with “dog collar” and cassock under the gown.

By the 1920s some clergy were beginning to wear the dog collar slipped into the neck band of a front vest (rabat) with the collar attached to a white shirt along with a black suit. This kind of clerical attire was usually worn for formal occasions.  I also bought a rabat like this from Almy’s for this purpose, along with some  white neckband shirts with French cuffs.

Clerical collar with rabat

Many Protestant clergy in America wore a white tie with a detachable collar and a frock coat, morning coat, or sack coat. This was simply men’s formal attire. This may explain why some of the questioner’s predecessors in the confirmation class photo archive were wearing neckties or clerical collars. Unlike the state Lutheran Churches in Europe, American Lutheran Churches have no rules about prescribed clerical attire (or vestments).

Obviously, in American Lutheran practice the vestments worn by pastors have changed over the years. This is also evident in those photo archives. Early Lutherans may have had only the preaching gown, with or without tabs. Beginning in the 1920s Lutheran pastors began adopting the Anglican vesture of cassock, surplice, and stole. Beginning in the 1970s the cassock-alb with stole became nearly ubiquitous. Over the decades since then more parish pastors have worn alb, stole, and chasuble for the Eucharist.

After World War II clerical dress became more casual. Detachable clerical collars would be worn with a black shirt without a rabat. Around 1970 “tab shirts” became popular (a plastic “tab” was slipped into the sleeve of the shirt collar. These were initially embraced by Roman Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors, while Anglicans/Episcopalians and Presbyterians/Reformed  preferred to continue wearing the detachable collar. The tab shirts have been widely adopted by other clergy in other traditions around the world.

There is no difference in significance between the detachable “dog collar” and the tab shirt. I have worn both although the detachable collar has a more formal appearance and works better with the cassock, for which it was designed.

The basic color of clergy shirts or rabats is black. The color of the shirt should be the color of the cassock. Since bishops wear purple cassocks in choir they began wearing purple shirts, either neckband or tab collar, along with their jeweled pectoral cross. (Catholic Bishops continue to wear black shirts or Rabats). Some Protestants have worn gray shirts and suits to distinguish themselves from Catholic priests (especially in the Episcopal/Presbyterian/Reformed traditions). This should match a gray cassock or gown. Some Scots Presbyterians wear a dark blue cassock (the color of St. Andrew’s University) and therefore could wear a dark blue clergy shirt. In the tropics if a white cassock is allowed, white clergy shirts should be allowed also. Shirts in the colors of the liturgical seasons have no tradition behind them. When I see a clergy person in a colored clergy shirt I assume (almost always correctly) that he or she is a Lutheran or Methodist. The color of the clergy suit is black! But gray suits could be worn with gray clergy shirts (Presbyterian/Reformed clergy). I could also go with gray slacks and black or dark blue blazer for informal occasions. 

Once upon a time clergy were always expected to wear clerical attire when on duty. This included working in the church office. Office attire has become very casual in recent years and I see no reason why clergy can’t be casual also when just working in their office or study. But I think they should keep a black clergy shirt and suit hanging in their office closet to slip on if they need to make an emergency home or hospital call. Clergy attire distinguishes a clergy person from other persons in society. In my experience it has often helped me to gain admittance in a situation which would be off-limits to the general public. If a public event is taking place in the church building, whether liturgical, or church meeting, or a community meeting, or a concert, or whatever, the pastor should be identifiable. I can’t think of any reason for clergy not to be identifiable when doing pastoral work or on the church premises when activities are going on, whether church-related or community-related.

Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS


Bishop Yngve Brilioth, Swedish liturgical scholar


  1. Joseph Yisrael

    Thank you, i learn more and more

  2. Douglas Anderson

    That is an extremely interesting and educational article, thank you. I have a couple of comments, if I may:-

    1) King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II were uncle and nephew, rather than cousins (the Kaiser was the son of the King’s eldest sister).

    2) The blue colour of cassocks and shirts worn by some Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) ministers is taken from the Scottish flag (a.k.a. the St Andrew’s Cross), a white saltire on a blue background), and does not appear to be related to the University of St Andrews.

    Again, many thanks for the article.

  3. Brian Mundt

    Which cassock is traditional among Lutherans (either in the US or in “the Old Country”)? Roman (single-breasted) or Anglican (double-breasted)?

    • Comment by post author

      Lutherans in the “old countries” wore single breasted cassocks. In Germany, Sweden, and Finland the cassocks (which were originally clergy coats) were shortened to knee-length frock coats (better for riding horses, I suppose), worn with what the English called tabs, the Germans called beffchen, and the Swedes/Finns called elvans (“elevens”). In Denmark, Norway, and Iceland the priests wear full-length cassocks with large buttons down the front and ruffs. In the U.S. and Canada Lutheran pastors began wearing cassocks with surplice and stole early in the 20th century, similar to Anglican/Episcopal vesture. But most Lutherans chose the Roman cassock; some wore the double-breasted Anglican cassock.

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