One of the most distinctive items worn by priests — outside of vestments at Mass — is what many call “the Roman collar” (or collarino). This is usually worn with a black shirt as part of clerical (street) attire.
The collar is worn in a slot tab shirt with a high neckband and inserts to hold the white piece of plastic or linen. The tab is about three inches long. The collar can also be a band of white worn in a low-collared or collarless shirt.
Sometimes the insert or collar band is worn with a rabat. A rabat is, a vest or waistcoat that buttons or ties in back and is worn with a collarless dress shirt and suit coat. The tab insert can also be used with a cassock, which was common attire among most American and European Catholic clergy until the 1960s.
Canon law states that “clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and legitimate local custom” (n. 284). In the United States, bishops at the 1884 Council of Baltimore decided that priests should wear black, preferably cassocks. They chose cassocks, since that was what missionaries had worn. After the reforms of Vatican II, suits became more common. In 1999, the U.S. bishops issued a directive that, outside of liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar should be the clerical apparel for priests. The cassock is worn at the discretion of the cleric.
However, the Roman collar — or any clergy collar — is not unique to Catholics. In fact, the Roman collar may not even have developed with Catholic clergy.
Types of collars
Clergy of many denominations wear collars. Some look identical to the Roman collar. Others may wear an entire band — not just an insert — that fastens with a button or snap in the back. And, even today, a ruff collar may be seen on a Danish Lutheran minister.
Many sources — including the Glasgow Herald on Dec. 6, 1894 — say the Roman collar was devised by a Protestant minister in Scotland, named Donald McLeod, in the 18th century. However, that Glasgow Herald’s article, often referenced by these sources, actually may have had a humorous rather than historical intent, according to research by Rev. Matt Collins, himself a Reformed Episcopal minister.
It is possible that confusion arose in the 19th century. At that time, the Roman collar became popular among Anglican clergy of the Oxford Movement who hoped for a revival of Catholic traditions in their own church.
It seems that some form of collar — often a band of white cloth folded over a shirt collar — was used by clergy long before the 19th century. It probably developed out of regular street attire. Most vestments used at Mass likewise developed in the early church from everyday dress, becoming more formalized over the centuries. In this way, capes became chasubles and neck scarves became stoles. Vestments, of course, are now sacramental items, while clerical attire is not.
When Germanic tribes invaded
Clergy clothing in the very early years did not differ from anyone else’s clothing. This continued in those centuries after Christianity received official sanction in the Roman Empire. However, clothing styles began to change around the sixth century, when Germanic tribes invaded the remnants of the Western Roman Empire.
Consequently, Christian clergy retained the long tunics of Rome’s earlier days, while most people adopted the short tunics and leggings of northern (and pagan) tribes. That Roman tunic eventually developed into today’s cassock. In Europe, people know the cassock by its French name — soutane — referring to the fur or wool that lined priestly tunics to protect against the cold of northern climates.
The Roman collar may have evolved in the same way. However, there is also evidence that it developed from the liturgical vestment called the amice. The amice was first a head covering and then became a linen scarf that priests wore to protect the expensive cloth of other vestments from skin oil. Until 1972, the amice was an obligatory vestment. Now it is optional, as long as the priest’s alb covers all his street clothes underneath and protects the chasuble.
Related to neckties
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decided that clergy should not dress extravagantly — because they were doing so, like most people of any stature did at that time. By the 15th century, men’s attire in Europe included linen collars and scarves folded over jacket collars —protecting them from daily wear and soil. These eventually evolved into neckties of various styles. Clergy wore similar collars.
Again, as the average gentleman’s collar became more elaborate and decorated with silk embroidery, some priests followed the styles. This is probably why Pope Urban VIII, in 1624, issued an edict that lace, embroidery and ribbons were forbidden on clerical collars.
It is believed that the preaching bands of Protestant clergy — with long, white tabs over the chest — also developed from neckties. (Lawyers wore — and still wear in some British courts — barrister bands.)
By 1725, Pope Benedict XIII ordered priests not to wear lay attire. That, of course, has since changed. Today, priests’ clerical attire looks much like black business suits. (And priests are allowed leisure clothes as well.)
However, not only priests wear a collar — any ordained clergy can wear the Roman collar, including deacons and bishops. Some seminarians also use collars. Even religious brothers may wear collars. However, theirs look different than ordained clergy’s. The “brother’s collar” or “brothers colarrette,” is more similar to a full band collar, but narrow at the top, or all black or all white with a black triangle in the center.
Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia;” “The Church Visible. The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church”; ewtn.com; bbc.uk.com; QUARA.com; kencollins.com; Our Sunday Visitor at osv.com; theshirtcollar.com; independentmethodist.org; the 1983 Code of Canon Law; uscatholic.org; the blog “Colvinism”; and vestrysupplies.com