When I was a student at a Catholic parish elementary school, back in Rhode
Island in the late 1940s and early '50s, I was an altar-boy, and my best
friend Brian was a choir-boy. I also studied to be a priest at a seminary.
The Catholic Church does not allow girls to be altar-servers and likewise there were no women or girls in the parish choir. There were boys for the soprano and alto parts and men for tenor and bass. One HBC reader rembers the vestments worn by one choir. All the choir members wore floor-length red cassocks in the Roman style--that is, with buttons from the collar to the hem. Over the cassock they wore white surplices with square-yoked necklines; the
surplices were mid-thigh length and had wide full sleeves. In addition to
the cassock and surplice the boys (but not the men) wore stiff white
starched linen (later some kind of plastic/cloth composite) collars and
large red satin bows at the throat.
Costume for the altar-boys during my first few years was a black
floor-length Roman-style cassock with white surplice. Later on, a white
linen collar was added with a large black satin bow. The altar-boys looked
just like the choir-boys, excep in black/white instead of red/white. Choir and altar-boy costume among Catholics varied widely from parish to parish.
I understand that there is a similar variety of choir and altar-server costume among Anglicans/Episcoplians. For instance, in some parishes the altar boys wore white albs with cowls (the cowls are rarely worn on the head; they are simply draped over the shoulders as decorative), wooden crosses on a cord around the neck, and a rope cincture in the color prescribed for the priest's vestments that day. When I was an altar server, athletic footwear and jeans were verboten. You had to wear dress shoes, generally black, with dark socks and dark trousers. I imagine the rule was the same for choir members. The age of alter boys is set by the age of the First Communion. Altar boys have to have had only a first communion for those solemn duties, whereas a confirmation is when you become an adult in the eyes of the church. I am not sure if the age is a set limit, or if it per parish, but I do know that altar boys were rarely over the age of 16. The robes worn by Roman Catholic altar boys are probably most familiar to Americans. The Roman Catholics are, however, not the only church which has altar boys. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant Churches also have altar boys which wear ecclesiastical robes.
By the time the collar and bow was added for the altar-boys, I had graduated
from the 9th grade, and gone on to high school at the diocesan seminary. It
was my intention at the time to be a priest. For all liturgical functions
all the seminarians, whether in high school or college, wore the black
cassock and white surplice. High school students as well as college
freshmen and sophomores wore jacket and necktie to classes. College juniors
and seniors (known among us collectively as 'philosophers') dressed like
priests full time; they wore black cassocks in one of three styles current
at the time: Roman-style (with buttons full length in front) with or without
a wide waist sash; Jesuit-style (with right panel wrapping over the left and
buttons on the right from shoulder to waist) with a narrow sash; or
semi-Jesuit-style (right wrapping over left - but not so far as the Jesuit
style, and without buttons; it had hidden snaps under the wrapped portion)
with a wide sash.
I wore the semi-Jesuit-style for dressy ocassions when I
became a college junior, a Roman-style for classes and hanging around in.
The Roman cassocks I had were cheap, off-the-shelf garments. My semi-Jesuit
cassock, on the other hand, was custom tailored by M.H. Gerritts (if I
recall properly) in Boston, and it was a beautiful garment. It was made of
a heavy men's suiting fabric, hand-fitted and double-lined to the waist.
The full skirt had a heavy edging along the inside hem (I don't know what
the technical term is for sich an edging) to protect the hem from raveling
and to have the cassock hang properly. I wore this cassock for dressy
occasions, as I mentioned, because it fit so well and was very flattering.
At the time I was slim-waisted (no longer), and the wide sash and long
draped-lines of the skirt made me look even slimmer and taller. There was a
deep vest pocket, two pockets just below the waist on either hip, tucked
inside the skirt, and very deep cuffs on the sleeves which also could be
used for pockets.
American seminarins customarily wore black pants and
white shirt under the cassock, and my cassock had side slits 7 or 8 inches
long just behind the cassock-pockets so that I could put my hands into my
pants pockets, too. So I had six pockets just below the waist (2 in the
cassock, four in the pants), a vest pocket, a shirt-pocket, and two
cuff-pockets. European seminarians, I'm told, went without pants or shirts
under the cassock - they just wore their underwear. In hot weather American
seminarians would bend the rules a little by not wearing a shirt underneath,
just a t-shirt, and by wearing bermuda shorts instead of full-length
trousers. Our cassocks had the Roman collar, with the little square cut-out
for the starched white shirt-collar to show in front. Collars worn by
diocesan seminarians and priests (who belong to no religious order, but are
secular clergy responsible to a local bishop) are generally the Roman style.
Collar styles of religious orders differ, and many orders have their own
'habits'. Seminarians in religious orders wear the habit of their order, or
some variation on it. Franciscan seminarians, for example, wear the brown
robe with rope sash, and brown sandals.
I liked sandal as a boy. I still don't much care for standard men's
shoes or athletic shoes. I generally wore black leather sandals (instead
of the customary black shoes or loafers) with my cassock when I was in the
seminary - just because I liked to. The other seminarians thought it was
something of an affectation on my part, and teased me about it. Dr. Scholls
made several styles of men's sandals back then and I had a couple of pairs.
Most of the other seminarians wore ordianry men's shoes. One other boy in
my class had a pair of beautiful black sandals hand-made by the Trappist
monks in Spencer Massachusetts. I dearly wanted a pair like his, but I cold
never get up there to buy them.
For liturgical services I wore a white surplice over my cassock, and also
had a biretta, the black hat with pom-pom that priests use; bishops wear
purple ones, cardinals red ones, and the Pope a white one.
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