Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged, Part 1: The Basics

Oh hey, Reverend. You’re looking pretty sharp in your new capsule wardrobe. Now it’s time to think about vestments.

In certain Christian traditions, vestments are not a part of the ballgame, and you will be expected to preach and lead worship in your street clothes. If you are a pastor in such a church, good for you! Go ahead and spend your vestment budget on distressed jeans instead.

For the rest of us, the vestment universe can be a dizzyingly complicated, frighteningly arbitrary, and VERY EXPENSIVE place. If you’re just starting out, how much of this stuff do you really need? What do you have to buy for yourself, and what will your church provide for you? And when do you wear it all?

Let’s take a look.

almy-womens-lace-alb

Alb. If you are an Episcopalian (or, in some areas, a Methodist, Lutheran or Disciple), this is your jam. An alb is a long white robe symbolizing baptism and may be worn by any baptized Christian. Clergy usually wear them for Eucharistic services; lay people may bust them out when they are serving as subdeacons, chalice bearers, or acolytes. Don’t worry, my low Protestant friends — academic preaching robes will be covered in a forthcoming post.

Most alb-using churches have a stockpile of albs in various sizes. However, these get a lot of wear and rapidly become dingy from other people’s neck sweat. Gross. Also, if you are petite (I am 5’3″) and dare to rely on the stockpile, you will probably have to fight a tween acolyte every Sunday for custody of the one short alb. Just buy your own.

Where should you purchase this alb? Almy has some nice options (like the lace-trimmed one featured at left, which is the one I own). Like everything made by Almy, your alb will last forever but will fit like a potato sack. With an alb, though, the potato-sack fit is actually fine.

WomenSpirit also makes albs in a range of styles, although I counsel you away from the one with embroidered grapes on it. Wippell’s albs are well-made but pricey. I don’t know what they’re doing with all that money, because they are certainly not investing it in web design.

almy-cinctureCincture. Any Spanish-speakers out there? A cincture is a cinturón (belt) that goes around your cintura (waist) when you are wearing an alb. Although you can buy them in different colors for every season, in the Episcopal Church I’ve only seen white ones. I recommend the rope style pictured at left; this band style will make your alb look too much like a prom dress. You can choose a cincture finished with tassels or big-ass knots (properly called “monk’s knots”): Either one is fine.

Before I assisted at my very first funeral, I realized I had no cincture. I ran into my church’s robing room and grabbed the first skinny white rope I saw. As I tied it around my waist, I noticed that it seemed awfully long, but I didn’t overthink it.

A few minutes later, a member of the altar guild wandered into my office. “I was going to tie off the first few pews to reserve them for the family of the deceased,” she said, “but I can’t find the pew rope.”

Fidgeting in my vestments, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “That’s so odd. I wonder where it could be.”

Don’t be like me. Better to have your own cincture. They’re cheap.

Stoles. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate this WomenSpirit ad’s resemblance to a promo poster for a horror film.

womenspirit-lenten-stoles

Their lust for your stole is insatiable. They are coming for it. AND FOR YOU.

These evil women would like you to note the difference between a deacon stole (right), which is shaped like a pageant sash, and a priest/pastor/elder stole, which is shaped like a yoke. Sort of.

Some churches are well-stocked with a complete supply of stoles that match their altar linens. If this is true of your church, you won’t need to buy any at all, although you will probably want to because stoles are cool.

In a liturgical church, there are four basic colors you will need:

  • Red for Holy Week, Pentecost, ordinations, installations, and martyr’s feasts.
  • White for Christmas, Easter, weddings, funerals, secular holidays, and non-martyr saints’ days, plus a few outliers like All Saints’ Day, Epiphany, and Christ the King. Gold and silver stoles both count as white, but slow your roll, Liberace. Get yourself a plain white one first.
  • Purple for Lent and Advent.
  • Green for everything else.

And two bonus colors!

  • Blue if your church prefers to use blue instead of purple for Advent.
  • Pink (Rose) if your church uses rose vestments for the happy Sundays in Advent and Lent.

Now, a word about taste. A stole indicates that you are a laborer in the vineyard, doing your best to live into your call. It is not meant to make you into a human billboard, and it should not have to do all the work of the liturgy by itself. You do not need a stole with an entire appliquéd Bible story on it; that is what the Scripture reading is for. You should not need a stole that says BLACK LIVES MATTER; that is what your sermon is for. If you cannot resist the siren song of Etsy stole shops, at least build a good set of well-made basics first.

If somebody wants to buy you a really nice ordination present, the Holy Rood Guild is expensive but unmatched for quality. And if you are trying to build your pastoral aesthetic, you could do what I do and make Pinterest boards of stoles in each color. I try to remember to pin an image every time I come across a stole I don’t hate.

Stay fabulous, my friends … and stay tuned for Part 2: Choir Dress!

8 thoughts on “Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged, Part 1: The Basics

  1. I officially love your new blog! I’m newly ordained and 5 ft tall so wanted to add two things I learned the hard way. 1) Pay attention to the length of the stole before you purchase it or you may find that it drags on the ground — up to 6 inches on each side in my case. 2) Also, pay attention to the back length of chasubles or yes, they too can drag to the ground. A friend, who is also on the shorter side, introduced me to this site (http://catholicliturgicals.com/) which offers a “short” size for vestments. For those of us who are smaller, this is terrific so we don’t look like we are drowning in reams of fabric.

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    1. Congrats on your recent ordination! The short vestment sizes are PURE GENIUS. Thanks for sharing the link. I had to return the first alb I ordered from Almy after determining that their idea of “5’3 to 5’5” only worked for me if I was teetering around in four-inch heels.

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    1. My main criterion for a chasuble is that it not shriek “POLYESTER!” from a mile away. The church I serve now has a full set from Almy that are really quite lovely, but if I had infinite money I might go for some silk brocade ones from Holy Rood. What’s your favorite chasuble source?

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  2. Pros and cons of cinctures: If you are very curvy, the cincture may emphasize that in a very unflattering way, especially if the alb has a straight cut rather than A-line. (If you are curvy, though, don’t get a straight cut one and don’t get one that will gape open without a cincture). I was ordained while 8 months pregnant, having done an interim ministry elsewhere for the 4 months prior, I dismissed using a cincture. (I kidded my male colleague that I was afraid it would look like a beer belly after they joked about looking pregnant themselves.) This works fine indoors. But the cincture will tie down your stole outdoors on windy days. Doing without a cincture gets occasionally challenging when windy (not that the ends won’t fly around even with a cincture when it’s really windy). Lately I have stopped using an alb at funerals on very hot days. I very nearly fainted once, and several times got so sweaty that my eyes were stinging!) I use black pants and tunic length clerical (or a professional-looking top of any color with a black Janie under it) with elbow length sleeves, with my stole. I know, not entirely Kosher. But as a Lutheran rather than an Episcopalian I can get away with it, lol.

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    1. I go back and forth on cinctures too — I love their symbolic import but not the weird lumpy silhouette they create. I haven’t yet had to do a funeral on a sweltering day, but your alternative sounds lovely. Just one more thing we can stand to learn from the Lutherans!

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