Material History of American Religion Project

Ministerial Dress

Through much of American history, the ministry has been a social status as much as a vocation. Young men, often from small towns, often became the leading citizens of their communities when they were ordained. They became gentlemen. As such, they had to learn how to talk, behave, and dress, often subjects not taught at seminary. A genre of advice books appeared to meet this need. Here a chapter on dressing like a minister and a gentleman from Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette by Nolan B. Harmon (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950). As an example of his recommended style, see our preaching suit.

The whole matter of proper dress for the minister may very well be left to the instincts of a gentleman, but when a man belongs to a church or ecclesiastical order which expects him to wear a distinctive garb, he ought to wear it. This is the sum of all that might be written upon this entire subject.

Many ecclesiasticisms have their own regulations or, what are sometimes even more powerful, their own customs prescribing the garb in which their men are to appear. This creates good use for the ministers involved; and it can be said here that no matter how formal the occasion may be, when a minister is dressed in his usual clerical attire he is always considered to be in perfect taste. As is the case with military and naval officers, whose uniform is proper for any appearance they may make, the clergyman's distinctive garb is always correct.

For ministers of the nonliturgical churches, or those who do not wear any special garb, the ordinary three-piece sack suit with the usual accessories for everyday wear provides a costume which is in keeping on all usual occasions. As is true for any gentleman, one's clothes should be inconspicuous; and the minister will not choose any suiting that is striking or unusual. "Parishioners are not eager to have their preacher wear showy apparel," Murray H. Leiffer reports in The Layman Looks at the Minister. The same study makes clear, however, that people do not care for somber clothes on their pastor. Dark blues or dark grays are always "safe." Ministers as a rule are not able to have more than one all-around good suit. That one therefore should be of the best, and so chosen that it will be appropriate on any occasion--in the pulpit, at a funeral, a wedding, or wherever the minister must appear in his public capacity. The same rule holds in choosing an overcoat.

Formal ministerial costume

Certain churches have their own regulations and customs which prescribe the wearing of vestments for occasions of formal worship and church ceremonies. The use of such vestments is of course authoritative for the ministers of these churches, and no further comment need be made.

The pulpit gown, or clerical robe, sometimes referred to as a "pulpit robe" or "Geneva gown," has come to be used for formal pulpit wear almost universally by the ministers of the larger nonliturgical denominations of the North and West, though not so generally by ministers of the South. Such gowns are of different patterns and types but all are basically adaptations of the Geneva gown of the Reformers.

The use of a gown or robe for pulpit wear has much to commend it. It follows out the tradition of the minister as the teacher (doctor) of Christian truth, and as one who is ordained to speak authoritatively regarding it. A gown has also a certain psychological value in setting the minister apart from the people when he is to declare God's word to them. Nor is this apartness something felt by the people alone. What minister worthy of the name has not been aware, as he robed himself to go before a congregation, that he was assuming an awesome but a glorious mission?

Last but not least a gown hides with its kind encompassing folds all the vagaries of suiting and discordances of dress that otherwise might be much too evident. "A good gown," one minister put it, "covers a multitude of poor tailoring."

Clerical gowns are all very much alike, though some are designed to hang loosely with no fastening in front, while others fasten closely almost to the neck. The so-called "doctor's gown" is usually worn open and is quite appropriate for both pulpit and academic use. As a rule most ministers wear the gown closed, but some wear it partially open and with it a turndown collar and four-in-hand tie. The minister in such instances must of course be sure that the suit or vest he wears under the gown is black or quite dark so that there will be no incongruity between the black gown and the clothing visible beneath. This caution holds for the necktie also and even for the socks worn. The tie should be black, or black with fine white stripes; the collar wing, poke, or turndown.

A majority of the ministerial authorities who reported on their practice state that they always wear the gown for formal worship, and those who are doctors of divinity wear the doctor's bars—three bars of velvet on both sleeves. But only a very few favor the use of the academic hood with the gown at regular church services. "The academic hood has no place in church or religious services, " Dr. James Gilkey puts it; while a Brooklyn minister termed the use of the hood "vanity and ostentation." It must indeed be admitted that the blazing colors of a man's alma mater displayed in broad patterns on his back as he walks into the pulpit do not comport with ordinary Sunday worship. However, if the occasion be an academic one, as at acollege commencement, or even the regular formal services at a school or college chapel, the hood is quite in keeping.

The customary pulpit robe ensemble is as follows:

Gown: Always black; worn open or partially open or closed.

Sleeves: May vary, but an inner sleeve that keeps a long expanse of white cuff and shirt from showing when the minister lifts his arm is much to be preferred.

Collar: Any type if the four-in-hand or bow tie is to be visible. A clerical collar if Geneva bands are worn.

Tie: Black bow or black four-in-hand; or black with white stripes permissible as a four-in-hand.

Shoes: Black, as should be the socks.

Hood: For academic occasions; must be fastened carefully.

Shirt: White.

Suit: Any dark suit which if seen below the gown, or through he gown if it is worn open, will not be in too marked a contrast.

Head covering: The traditional "mortar board" cap is all right for academic processions, but when the minister is to wear his gown outdoors for distinctively ministerial service apart from college occasions, a biretta or Cranmer cap would be more appropriate. However, nonliturgical ministers who wear the gown outside the church--which is rare--rebel against the clericalism which such headgear implies. But of course the ordinary hat would be impossible.

Instead of vestments or gown formal morning clothes have for a long time been the clerical wear of many Protestant ministers, and still are in many parts of the country, especially in the South. This costume is based largely upon the cutaway or morning coat, which with gray-and-black striped trousers has long been considered correct formal daytime wear for a gentleman. Formerly the frock coat or "Prince Albert" was frequently seen in place of the cutaway, and is entirely proper. But the frock coat does not find many wearers today among American men, either clerical or lay.

The formal morning costume referred to above has been so long used by many Protestant nonliturgical ministers that in some sections it has come to be regarded as distinctively clerical attire. The customary ensemble is here indicated:

Coat: Black cutaway, not "cut away" quite as much as that of the ordinary gentleman. No braid; plain uncovered buttons favored by most, though covered buttons are called for by some prominent clergymen. No satin-faced lapels. Cloth is usually some rich, nonshiny material. Black unfinished worsted is much in favor.

Waistcoat or vest: Of the same cloth as the coat. Cut rather high. A silk cassock vest with clerical collar is much favored today with the cutaway by certain clergymen.

Trousers: May be of same cloth as coat; or black-and-gray striped; or black with fine white stripe. Never with cuffs.

Collar: Poke or wing. The turndown collar and four-in-hand, however, is often worn with the cutaway.

Tie: Black bow; or black, or black-and-white four-in-hand.

Shoes: Any good black shoe.

Hat: Should be high silk or opera crush for formal morning clothes, but ministers as well as other men have such a distaste for a "high hat" that a dark Homburg or any distinctive, soft, dark felt is made to do. When an overcoat is worn, this is easier to "get away with." A derby or straw or colored hat of any kind is of course out of the question.

Shirt: Always white. The dress shirt with attached stiff cuffs is correct.

Jewelry: Shirt studs and cuff links to match have always been an institution. These can be of mother-of-pearl or dark onyx, even of gold if inconspicuous. Fashion decrees that if a bow tie is worn with a cutaway, the one shirt stud that shows above the waistcoat must be of gold, though it would not seem that this should be obligatory upon the minister. The four-in-hand, of course, obviates such a situation. Gold cuff links may be worn, or even an inconspicuous scarf pin with a four-in-hand, but the minister who is unadorned with jewelry is in flawless taste.

Gloves: White kid or gray suede or white buck would be most formal, but many use an inconspicuous gray or dark dress glove.

General appearance

A man's clothing and appearance always reflect his personality, and the minister is no exception. While he may feel that he has the right to dress as he pleases, he should not forget that here again he may not divest himself of his essential character in any company; and there is a sense in which a minister is never "off duty." There is a time both for shirt sleeves and for work clothes, but in public or on the street no minister can afford to let his profession down.

Any man, to be well dressed, must be immaculately groomed. His personal appearance must be beyond reproach—hair trimmed, nails clean and well cared for, and clothing at all times clean and pressed. These things are basic of course. Clothes need not be fine, but they do need to be clean. A soiled shirt cuff lifted before an audience, or the sight of a dark spot on the shirt where the collar point touches—what an affront to the tremendous "Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord."

Tan shoes are out for anything like formal wear, especially in the pulpit. Neckties give an opportunity for a bit of color in normal daytime wear, but let there be no colored tie visible in the pulpit. Neither are colored socks appropriate for pulpit wear. Good taste, of course, keeps any gentleman from wearing an assortment of fobs, pins, chains, buttons, and whatnot on his coat or vest. Whatever jewelry is worn should be simple and inconspicuous.

A schedule of proper ministerial grooming

What has been said above in regard to correct dress may be summed up briefly as follows:

Formal morning worship: One's most formal wear. Vestments, if and as prescribed; pulpit robes with accessories as described; or morning clothes--cutaway, frock coat, or dark single- or double-breasted sack coat with matching trousers, or with dark gray striped trousers as described.

Evening worship: One's formal morning wear not incorrect unless church custom directs otherwise. The cutaway is sometimes worn for evening worship and is not incorrect for ministers, though strictly speaking it is not considered correct evening wear for the ordinary gentleman. The black, dark blue, or dark gray sack suit is often worn by ministers of the nonliturgical churches.

Summer services: Ministers of the nonliturgical churches often dress in light summer clothing on hot Sundays and discard pulpit robes. White linen suits are frequently seen.

Formal weddings: One's formal ecclesiastical dress. If the minister wears a cutaway or regular suit, it is not out of keeping for him to wear a boutonniere if the other gentlemen of the bridal party wear them. If there is to be a reception afterward, it is proper for the minister to attend in his clerical costume; or if he wears a gown for the wedding, he may have evening dress or a Tuxedo on under it and so be ready for the later occasion.

Informal weddings: Depends on circumstances. Even a "quiet home wedding" demands some measure of formality.

Funerals: Always formal ministerial attire, wherever the funeral is held--church, home, or undertaker's. No funeral is ever informal.

Baptism: As baptism is generally held to be one of the sacraments of the Christian Church, the minister should usually be dressed formally for the occasion. In those situations where baptism takes place in a private home circumstances will govern.

Formal secular evening occasions: If the minister has a dinner jacket or full dress, he should feel free to wear it on such occasions just as other men do. If he has not such a garment, or prefers to go in what is his regular clerical garb, he is perfectly correct in so doing.

Sports, fishing expeditions, picnics, etc.: The minister should feel free to wear the same sort of clothes that other men do on such occasions.

It should be added to what has already been said that any formal wear is out of keeping in informal places. When a man's dress makes him unusually conspicuous—as for instance a formal ensemble worn in a rural community where this particular costume has not been customary--although he may be correctly dressed by the standards that prevail in other places, he may lose something by being out of line with the community which he serves. It should be remembered that "usage" comes from "use," and "good usage" is but the crystallization of "usefulness."


Nolan B. Harmon, Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 193-200.


Return to the documents page

Return to the project home page