English Boy Choirs: Performance Costumes

Figure 1.--Here we see a CDV portrait of an English choir boy wearing a white surplice. Unfortunately the portrait is washed out. We can make out quite a high Eton collsar which looks to be worn with a necktie with a large knot. The mortar board indicates that he was a student. I'm not sure if he was at a preparaory school or cathedral choir. The portrait was taken at Huddersfield. I'm not sure what school or cathedral was nearby.

English boy choirs often perform in liturgical choir robes. Here the primary garment is the surplice, but albs are also worn. Tunics are mentioned in early accounts, but we are not always sure what is mean here. These church garments are of course worn because of the song school assicuations with the early Catholic and later Anglican cathedrals and their primary purpose of providing choral music for church services. In fact choristers in the early Church were normally boys planning to be monks or priests. Collars are often not described in early accounts. A reader tells us, "There is a significance to choir robes and meaning to the different colours of cassocks and the lengths of surplices." [Ebb]


There is little information on the costumes worn by early choristers. While written records do not exist, presumably there are some early paintings which may offer some insights. It is likely that from the early history of the Church that choristers performed in the surplice, although albs are also mentioned. Sometimes other garments such as tunics are mentioned and we are not always orecisely sure what garment is being described.


A surplice is a loose fitting, broad sleeves white vinner made of linnen normally worn over the cassock by clergymen, altar boys, and choristers. It is likely that from the early history of the Church that choristers performed in the surplice, although albs are also mentioned. One account during the reign of Edward VI (when the First English Prayer Book appeared), still in the 16th century, church officials were ordered to make the ancient albs into surplices for both the Ministers and choristers. It was not only the choristers at the great Cathedrals that wore surplices. The surplice was worn by choristers in small parish churches as well. The Inventory of St.Nicholas, Bristol prepared in the 16th century (1541-42)," Item for mendyng childes suplis belonging to the quer. 1d." , and 1542 --3, "Item ffor vi elles and a quartere ffor to make ii lades surplys at viid. the ell". Reports also indicate that choristers wore surpicles during the reign of Elizabeth I during the late 16th century. Parish churches appear to have stopped using surplices for the choir by the time of the Reformation. Apparently they became too associated with Catholic vestments. There were also attemps to ban the surplice from Cathedral services, but with little success. The surpice returned to favor in the 19th century. This was one of the more visible impacts of the Oxford Movement. An early Church to adopt the syrplice was Leeds Parish Church in 1841. Mant other Chuches quickly did the same. In only a few years, the surplice became common place in English parish churches. It also appeared in English colonies. A choir adopting the surplice was reported for the consecration of Christ Church, Sydney, in 1845. At first some objected to the surpice as a Catholic vestment--'rags of Popery'. There were even instances of "No-popery" rioting. This was, however, not the primary reaction. The surplice is now the principal garment for an English choir and few look on it with any sectarian view. [Nicholson]


A alb is a white linnen robe with close sleeves. An account at York Minster in 1399 mentions albs. One surviving inventory of Magdalen College, Oxford , lists for the boy choristers, " tunicles, red, white and crimson, with orfreys of damask and velvet, one set of albs of blue damask , and two with apparels of red silk". [Nicholson]


A cassock is a long close fitting garment wore by ecclesiastics and others involved in Church functions. A custom has developed of robing the choir in Cathedrals and Churches of royal foundation in scarlet cassocks is a modern development. The color ofcassocks in Medieval England varied. Red was not specially associated with choristers robes, but it was a normal color for royal liveries. A historian points out, "There is then no question of a ' right ' to wear red or blue or any other colour: the question is simply one of suitability and aesthetic taste." [Nicholson] A reader writes, "Cathedrals and abbeys are allowed to vest the boys in red cassocks, red being one of the marks of a cathedral choir in England. In the Episcopal Church the United Stares we see red cassocks in a lot of churches other than cathedrals. Another Anglican tradition is that canons and prebendaries (priests affliliated with cathedrals) are allowed to wear red buttons on their black cassocks."


One historian reports that for occasions of great importance, choristers might wear copes in processions ( Sarum Customary ). [Nicholson]


Commissioners of Henry VIII in the 16th century at St. Frideswide's Monastery, Oxford, listed in the inventory, "For the Choristers tunicles of red and white damask and silk, amesses of blue and white baundekin, and chequered with red silk and gold, besides the albs". [Nicholson]


While the surplice appears to have been the standard costume for choristers, there have been a number of notable exceptions. York Minster choristers used to wear "furred gowns". Durham Cathedral choristers also apparemtly wore furred gowns like those of York. The furred gowns at York persisted for centuries and as late as 1870 were still employed during Lent. There is a tradituion at Lincoln Cathedral that the two senior cjoristers wear black gowns with grey facings representing the old choir copes. Norwich Choristers as late as 1932, except on Sundays and Saints' days when they wear surplices, wore purple gowns with bands and ruffs. The Chapel Royal children wear royal livery. [Nicholson]


Less specific information is available on the collars boys wore with their eclesiastical robes. These robes are similar to those worn by clerics. The added collars destinguish the choristers. Most of the CoE and Catholic choirs use destinctive collars. The different choirs wear a variety of different collars with their robes, ranging from 19th century Eton collars to 16th century ruffs, a predecessor of the ruffled collar. Several choirs wear these ruffs, but there are considerable differences among the various ruffs worn. There is no definitive rule and individual churches decide for themselves. The ruffled collars seem the most popular in Church of England choirs. Several of the Catholic choirs have chosen Eton collars.


Ebbs, Chris. Director of the Treblemakers Junior church choirs. E-mail message, April 8, 2005.

Nicholson, Sydney H. Quires and Places Where They Sing.


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Created: 2:39 AM 6/11/2005
Last updated: 7:05 PM 1/25/2011