During my first year of ordained ministry, my church held a service of Advent Lessons & Carols. My boss told me to wear “choir dress,” which I earnestly hoped meant “the same thing as the choir.” I skulked down to the choir room, donned a spare set of robes that looked like about the right size, and returned upstairs.
My boss nodded and said, “Looks good. Just go get your tippet.”
Ever full of guile, I said, and I quote:
“What’s a tippet?”
Innocent Self of Advent Past, this post is dedicated to you.
But I digress. Let’s take a look at the gear you will need to get suited up in choir dress.
Cassock. A buddy of mine once complained, “I hate albs. They make me look like a fat ghost.” I have never seen him in an alb, but albs make most everyone look like a fat ghost, so he was probably not wrong.
Enter the cassock.
A cassock is a long button-down robe that is enormously flattering if it fits right. There are two basic types: single-breasted and double-breasted, otherwise known as Roman-style and Anglican-style. People who are very up on their vestment game may make assumptions about your churchwomanship based on your cassock type, but don’t let these haters bring you down. Just get one you like.
In Anglican tradition, bishops wear purple; priests and deacons wear black. At churches where you would otherwise wear an alb, break out the cassock for non-Eucharistic worship (i.e., any service where there is no consecration of Communion). These may include:
- Weddings and funerals
- Morning and Evening Prayer
- Lessons & Carols or Evensong
- Good Friday
- Special services like Taizé worship or All Hallows’ Eve
Do you need to buy your own? It depends on how much you’ll wear it. I usually say Morning Prayer while lying in bed, scrolling through dailyoffice.org on my phone; I would feel stupid wearing a cassock to do this. In the church I serve now, I need a cassock probably five or six times a year, so I would be content to keep pilfering the occasional choir robe. Except the altar guild measured me for a custom-fit cassock as an ordination gift and ohhhhhhhhhh.
Guys, if you are going to spring for a cassock, buy a nice cassock. Mine, in the Roman style pictured above, is from J & M Sewing in England (“Manufacturers of Clerical Robes by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”). It is fully lined and made of a beautiful suiting-weight wool. When I wear it I feel like a damn boss. It’s a major step up from borrowing a stanky polyester robe from the choir.
One note about buttons. A traditional cassock has 39 tiny buttons, to symbolize the 39 Tiny Articles of Faith. Do you want a 39-button cassock? Find out with this simple test!
- Put on a cardigan, preferably one with fussy fabric-covered buttons.
- Imagine that it is 6:58 PM and you are about to preside at a 7:00 Evensong service. Somebody has just spilled candle fuel all over the altar. The music director is tugging at your sleeve to ask if you know where the soprano section leader is. Outside, a winter storm is raging and you are beginning to wonder if anyone will be able to drive home.
- Get into this headspace. Inhabit it fully.
- Set your watch for two minutes.
- Carefully button and unbutton the buttons 39 times.
Some 39-button cassocks have hidden zippers. They’re not the worst idea, is all I’m saying.
Surplice. A surplice is a white garment that you wear over your cassock. Lest you become vain from swanning around in your cassock all the time, adding a surplice will immediately make you look like an angel in a Christmas pageant.
As with all this stuff, there’s a Roman style and an Anglican style and unless your boss has a preference it doesn’t really matter which one you get. Almy makes one billion different kinds. Knock yourself out. Or, as with the cassock, just borrow one from the choir.
Wear the surplice almost every time you wear a cassock. Exceptions may include Good Friday (when you wear all black to honor the solemnity of the occasion) and All Hallows’ Eve (when you wear all black to make it feel extra spooky).
Cotta. A cotta is just a short surplice. Cottas are adorable on young children singing in choirs, and that is what you will look like if you wear one. You do not need one of these.
How do you avoid Junior Chorister Syndrome? You buy a nice long surplice and then make sure it fits. A surplice should come at least to your knees, but no lower than mid-calf. While it’s supposed to be loose, the shoulders should still hit you in a recognizably shouldery spot. Even surplices that purport to be “cut” for “women” are often not designed to accommodate a bust. Do not put up with a high-low hem in your surplice; it is meant to hang evenly all the way around your body. If it rides too high in the front, buy the next size up and get the shoulders taken in as needed.
Giant Neck Ruff. These are also the terrain of junior choristers, most often in fancy-pants English-style choirs. You definitely do not need one of these. I just wanted you to enjoy the miserable expression of this young ruff model and share in my hope that he got paid an enormous sum of money for this photo shoot.
If your church has some children in the choir and you hate them, Wippell makes the ruffliest ruffs of them all. Almy’s are a bit less costume-like but still hilarious.
Tippet (Preaching Stole).
What’s a tippet?
Ha! Joke’s on you because I finally know.
A tippet is a black stole that you wear with your cassock and surplice if you are ordained. It is also called a preaching stole (as opposed to a presiding stole) because it is used for services that do not involve presiding over the Eucharist.
Unlike cassocks and surplices, tippets are usually not lying in piles all over your church’s robing room, waiting for you to borrow them in a pinch. Even if you rarely need one, it is a good idea to have your own tippet. The one pictured here is from Almy but there are various widths available from Wippell. Here is a direct quote from the Wippell tippet page:
The narrowest at 6” is popular with ladies, the 7½” for men with the widest 9” usually supplied to dignitaries.
“Women, men, and dignitaries” is a hierarchy of gender I had never considered before.
Tippet Seals. At that first service of Advent Lessons & Carols, I noticed that one of my colleagues had patches sewn onto her tippet. They looked like Girl Scout badges to me.
“What’s with the patches?” I asked.
Patiently, she explained to me that they were not patches but seals. Once you have your tippet, it is permissible to decorate it with some big ol’ embroidered
patches seals featuring the crest of your seminary, your denomination, and/or your regional denominational body. If you go this route, pick no more than two seals and put one on each end. Despite my initial impression, the tippet is not actually a Girl Scout sash.
My tippet does not currently have any seals on it, but the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, where I was ordained, has an unusually lovely seal and if someone were to embroider one for me I would not be mad. Look at those rivers and trees!
Update: Looking for a tippet seal from your Episcopal seminary? Almy has a bunch.
Meanwhile, I have no seminary tippet seal because I did not attend an Episcopal seminary. It never occurred to me that there might be any yawning gaps in my Anglican formation until my boss mentioned that choir dress was “what Anglicans would wear all the time if the Oxford Movement had never happened.”
Let no one say I learned nothing from the Great Tippet Embarrassment. I gave him a solemn nod, trotted back to my office and discreetly looked up the Oxford Movement on Wikipedia. I now consider myself an expert on the subject, so I encourage you to do the same.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Geneva Gowns & Academic Regalia!
9 thoughts on “Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged, Part 2: Choir Dress”
Thanks for this blog.
I have a 39 button cassock from the wonderful J&M Sewing, and what I do is not terribly elegant, but reasonably quick. I only ever undo the buttons on the top half, and then I step into it, and button up!
I do more or less the same thing … but I have to throw mine over my head because the top half won’t fit over my hips!
Great blog entry.
Just to clarify a few points from an English perspective at least:
The 39 buttons are not for the 39 articles but represent the 39 lashes Our Lord received. My cassock also have five pleats, which represent the five wounds.
The surplice really should cover the entire length of the cassock – just like a bishops rochet and the alb.
The tippet is called also called a preaching scarf, not a stole, and whilst they look simlar they are not actually related at all. The tippet originally was connected to the academic hood, but over the years, hoods (in the UK at least) got smaller and the tippet was disconnected from the hood and became two separate peices.
I do the same as Alison and step into my cassock with the bottom half of the buttons already done up. Its fine for me as the cassock is my everyday dress!!!
Is it OK to use an edited version of this article in our church newspaper?
Sure! You can quote me as the Rev. Catherine Healy.
You can view the excerpt of this article that I used in our February church newspaper, The Scepter.https://sainteds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/February2020_web.pdf
Thanks for allowing us to use your helpful and light hearted explanation of Choir Dress.
Veeeery very impressed.
Great blog post. You definitely have a good sense of humor. By the way, what about the rochet and chimere for bishops? You mentioned the purple cassock here as well as the miter in part 4, why not go over the rochet and chimere? As for occasions for choir dress, does it also include clergy who are at the Eucharist but not celebrating it (including preaching the sermon)?
Good point on the rochet and chimere! I’ll have to do an update sometime.
As for choir dress for non-celebrating clergy at the Eucharist, this custom seems to vary so much by region (and even by parish) that I’m hesitant to make any pronouncements about it … although one of my favorite parts of any ordination is looking around the processional to see who has chosen to deliberately ignore the vesting instructions from the bishop. “Just wear an alb and a red stole? Hmph. I’ll show you, buddy. [digs out lace alb] I’LL SHOW YOU.”