Figure 1.--This undated photograph shows the fancier altar boy vestments worn in the early 20th century. HBC is unsure if this was from an ehnic church.
An HBC contributor who was a student at a Catholic parish elementary school, back in Rhode Island during the late 1940s and early '50s was an altar-boyand had provided the following details on the vestments boys wore.
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, except in black/white instead of red/white.
The Altar and Choir dress was identical in most of the "Irish" or
"non-ethic" parishes in Rhode Island, and in nearby Massachusetts. The
surplices we wore were generally of linen or a cotton/linen mix; later on,
polyester or polyester/cotton mixes were used. To look their best,
surplices needed to be frequently laundered, bleached and starched. That was
the job of the altar or choir boys' mothers. In a few parishes the same
laywomen or nuns who took care of the altar linens also cared for the
priests' and servers' surplices. (Priests who were merely attending, rather
than participating in a service generally wore a white surplice with their
cassock, much like an altar boy's customary garb. Priests surplices often
had lace-trimmed hems and collars, while altar boys' surplices were almost
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.
I had the occasion to attend Mass from time to time at a
French-Canadian, Italian, or Polish parish. Altar servers in these parishes
often wore more elaborate costumes. Instead of a plain surplice, they often
wore a 'rochet' which was similar to a surplice, but had a ribbon-tie at the
collar, and deep lace hem and sleeves. The body of the rochet was often of
a silky or satiny fabric, rather than the linen or cotton/linen mix of the
surplice. Over the rochet, these altar or choir boys often wore a short
shoulder cape, called, I think, a mantaletta. The cassock might also be of
a dressier fabric. Altar servers in these parishes sometimes also wore
white gloves, and in at least one parish, I seem to recall, the altar boys
wore black patent leather strap shoes (while American boys had by the 40s
and 50s generally stopped wearing "Mary-Janes", they were still current in
Europe for dress wear). Some servers had little black or red skull-caps.
Their whole ensemble was similar to a priest's or bishop's "dress-up"
clothing--i.e. what he might wear if he were merely attending a service, or
if he were participating in a para-liturgical church function.
Boys in non-ethnic churches in plain cassock and surplice considered altar or
choir dress in these ethnic parishes to be over-fancy and fussy, not to say
effeminate or sissyish. Of course, we were a trifle jealous, too.
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 trend in Catholic parishes since then has been toward liturgical
simplicity, and in most places girls have joined boys as altar servers or
choristers. The altar servers in the parishes near where I live (Washington
DC area) ordinarily wear a long white (or off-white) cotton alb with a cowl
that is left hanging down in back. They wear a cincture (a rope belt) in
the liturgical color of the day or else simply in white. They also have a
plain wooden cross on a cord around the neck. In one parish nearby, they
require servers to wear plain white gloves. Altar or choir dress, when I
was a boy, was worn over "Sunday Best." In the absence of cassock and
surplice, you could just as well serve in a suit, dress shirt, and tie.
When a grown man occasionally is called upon to serve mass (for example,
when mass is held for a mens' fraternal society) he generally does so in
suit and tie. Nowadays, there really is no Sunday Best for most kids, so the
altar-server's alb and accesories function mostly as a cover-up of clothing
that seems too casual to look dignified.
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