Though it’s a symbol for Catholic and Protestant priests alike, the clerical collar started out as a secular accessory. It began to take shape sometime in the 15th century, when men were folding linen collars over their outerwear. Because the Middle Ages saw very little advancement in the fields of dry cleaning or hot showers, the clergy adapted the style. The easily removable, washable collars kept the priest’s trademark black robes, called cassocks or soutanes, from getting soiled with sweat stains.
By the 17th century, ornate collars had fallen out of fashion with the laity, but were on their way to being a universally accepted symbol of the Church. Styles, however, varied wildly among countries, orders, and individuals: French priests wore fussy lace overlays, while Anglican fathers opted for collars resembling ascots.
But it was Catholics in 19th-century Italy who pioneered the stiff, upturned style associated with men of the cloth today. Initially, the white linen neck bands were worn by Catholic archbishops, bishops, and cardinals to signal their ranks, says Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. But in the mid-1800s the Vatican decreed that holy vestments be as simple as possible, so the rank and file abandoned the ornate lace styles that had been around for centuries, preferring simple white bands instead. As a uniform way to affix the collars, Catholic priests later started wearing black vests called rabats (pronounced “rabbies”) under their cassocks.
Meanwhile, in North America, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Catholic priests were ditching their robes in favor of more academic attire, says Irwin. They started pairing the rabats and collars with three-quarter-length morning coats, most likely because the attire was more practical and less off-putting. That ensemble changed little until the 1960s, when the clerical shirt hit the scene and eliminated the need for a rabat. Around the same time, starched linen collars began giving way to white plastic versions that were more durable and easier to clean.
Today, whether a priest wears his collar at all is purely a matter of preference. Many Catholic priests, in fact, scrapped their collars following the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, at the same time that many nuns threw off their habits. Now, French fathers often wear neckties and suits accented with simple cross lapel pins, and Protestant priests have taken to plain clothes with even greater zeal.
Over the past century, the image of the clerical collarlike that of the Catholic priesthood itselfhas been somewhat tarnished. A recent National Lampoon advertising parody featured electronic-monitoring collars for pedophilic priests. But despite the scandals, collars are gaining popularity again. For that trend, Monsignor Irwin credits a return to tradition by priests who want to signal that they are available for public service. The traditional starched-linen style is also making a comeback. “Roman vesture suppliers,” notes James Charles Noonan Jr. in his 1996 book The Church Visible, “are now offering the permanently starched linen collars at a very reasonable rate.” And just imagine the savings on dry cleaning.
Nancy Einhart is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and a senior editor at Business 2.0.