Priestly Attire and Vestments

High Priest of
the Old Law
By Godís command the Jewish priests wore a distinctive garb when they ministered in the Temple. The Bible tells us they were vested in violet and purple, scarlet twice dyed, and fine linen. Gold and precious stones were also used to give the person of the priest that dignity demanded by his exalted office.

No special dress was at first prescribed for the Christian priesthood.  During the early days the garments worn at the Holy Sacrifice were not dissimilar in form to the clothing of civilians.  They were distinguished, however, from profane apparel in richness and beauty of decorations; and, of course, their use was restricted to divine worship.

Secular fashion changed, but the Church clung to the old style.  Thus it was that garments once common to all, presently became the privileged dress of the clergy.  Faith then saw in each particular vestment a symbol relating to the Passion of Our Lord, and a reminder of some Christian duty.

Text above from Mass and the Sacraments by Fr. John Laux, M.A.; Benziger Brothers 1934.

Ranks and Modes of Dress

Priests of different ranks have variations in their official uniforms. One such variation is color, as exemplified by the biretta (pictured right).

For each rank there are different modes of dress according to the occasion:

  • House Dress is traditionally worn at home and in public when not engaged in official public prayer and not offering Mass.

  • Choir Dress is worn for official public prayer and for Holy Mass when the cleric is not the celebrant (the one offering the sacrifice) and not the deacon or subdeacon at a Solemn Mass.

  • Liturgical Dress is worn by the celebrant at Holy Mass, and also by the deacon and subdeacon at a Solemn Mass.

Birettas of Different Ranks





Birettas are clerical hats worn in
liturgical and non-liturgical settings.

Some examples of different ranks and modes of clerical dress:

Priest in House Dress

This priest wears a cassock (robe) with a fascia (sash) and Roman collar (a white, full circle around the neck, concealed by the cassock but for a square in front).

The black color of the cassock, according to St. John Eudes, signifies being dead to sin. The fullness of its length symbolizes the consecration of the whole man to God.

Cleric or Altar Server
in Choir Dress

This cleric (priest or below) or altar server wears a surplice (white tunic) over his cassock. He also carries a thurible (not part of choir dress).

The surplice, says St. John Eudes, represents Christ in his purity (cf. Rom. 13:14).

Bishop in Choir Dress

This bishop wears the same garments as the priests to the left, except his cassock is amarinth in color, and he wears a mozetta (cape) over his surplice, a biretta (hat) and a pectoral cross. Concealed under his biretta is a cloth skullcap called a zuchetto, which resembles a Jewish yarmulke or kippah.

For public prayer, instead of a surplice, a bishop may wear a rochet (narrower sleeves), not pictured here.

Cardinal in Choir Dress

This cardinal wears the same garments as the bishop to the left, except they are scarlet in color.

Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope in Liturgical Dress

In addition to the priestly vestments listed below and used exclusively for Holy Mass, this bishop wears a mitre (hat) and cope (cape), and he carries a crosier (shepherd's staff). Under his mitre is a zuchetto.

Formerly, instead of a mitre the pope wore the papal tiara:

Images above adapted from Wikimedia Commons images.

Basic Vestments for a Priest Celebrating Holy Mass

In the Order in Which They Are Donned



The amice is a piece of fine linen in the shape of a square or rectangle. While vesting for Mass, the priest places it for a moment on his head, and then allows it to rest upon his shoulders. As he does so he prays: Place, O Lord, on my head the helmet of salvation, that so I may resist the assaults of the devil.
A covering for the head and neck worn like a hood. When indoors it was lowered and thrown over the shoulders.
(a) The linen cloth that the soldiers put over Our Lordís head; when thus blindfolded. He was mockingly asked who struck Him. (b) The helmet of Salvation (Cf. Ephes. 6:17)


A wide linen robe reaching to the feet and covering the whole body. The vesting prayer is: Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.
The alb, or tunic, was worn in ancient times by all who enjoyed any dignity.
(a) The garment with which Herod clothed Our Lord. (b) Signifies the purity of conscience demanded of Godís priests.


The cincture, or girdle, is a cord of linen fastened about the waist to confine the alb. The vesting prayer is: Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.
Walking and active exertion made it necessary for one to gird up a long garment like the alb. Hence the cincture was an essential article of dress.
(a) The cord that bound Our Lord to the pillar when He was being scourged. (b) Symbolizes modesty, and also readiness for hard work in Godís service.
Note: A red cincture is shown here to make it visible against the alb. Normally a red cincture would be worn with red vestments. A white cincture is more common and may be used for any occasion.


A strip of silken cloth worn on the left arm of the priest. The vesting prayer is: May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.
Originally a strip of linen worn over the arm. During the long services, and in the intense heat of southern countries its use was frequently necessary to wipe the perspiration from the face and brow.
(a) The rope whereby Our Lord was led, and the chains which bound His sacred hands. (b) An emblem of the tears of penance, the fatigue of the priestly office and its joyful reward in heaven.


A long band of silk of the same width as the maniple, but three times its length. It is worn around the neck and crossed on the breast. The vesting prayer is: Restore to me, O Lord, the state of immortality which I lost through the sin of my first parents and, although unworthy to approach Thy Sacred Mysteries, may I deserve nevertheless eternal joy.
A kind of neck-piece or kerchief; a part of the dress of the upper classes. It gradually became the distinctive mark of spiritual authority in the higher clerics, viz., the priest and deacon.
(a) The cords with which Jesus was tied. Worn as it is over the shoulders, it reminds us, too, of the cross Our Lord carried. (b) A reminder of the yoke of Christ.  The priestís burden is a heavy one, which Christ nevertheless makes sweet.


Priest in Full
Liturgical Dress

The chasuble is the outer and chief vestment of the priest at Mass. It is familiar to all by reason of the cross usually embroidered on it. The vesting prayer is: O Lord, who has said, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light," grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.
Imagine a large circular cloth with a hole cut in the center for the head. This will help one to visualize the ancient chasuble, which was an immense cloak, over the head and completely enveloping the body. When it was necessary to use the hands, the garment had to be folded up on each side over the arms. Because of its inconvenience (two assistants were needed to manipulate it), the vestment was gradually cut and altered until it took the form known today as the Roman chasuble. It is usually ornamented with a large cross on the back, and sometimes on the front of the garment. In the modern rite, it is more common to see chasubles made in the Gothic or Medieval style. These are more ample and drape over the shoulders down to the wrists. The cross on such chasubles has the shape of the letter "Y," the top arms of which extend over the priest's shoulders towards his front.
(a) The purple cloak worn by Our Lord when He stood before Pilate. (b) An emblem of love. When the ordaining bishop gives it to the new priest, he says: Receive the priestly garment, for the Lord is Powerful to increase in you love and perfection.

"Basic Vestments" text and illustrations adapted from Mass and the Sacraments by Fr. John Laux, M.A.; Benziger Brothers 1934.


© Todd Aylard