Clasps in Medieval to Modern Dress

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The ancient Greeks and Etruscans fastened their tunics at the shoulders with buttons and loops. In medieval Europe, garments were laced together or fastened with brooches or clasps and points, until buttonholes were invented in the 13th century. Then buttons became so prominent that in some places sumptuary laws were passed putting limits on their use.

By the 14th century buttons were worn as ornaments and fastenings from the elbow to the wrist and from the neckline to the waist. The wearing of gold, silver, and ivory buttons was an indication of wealth and rank. Expensive buttons were also made of copper and its alloys. The metalsmith frequently embellished such buttons with insets of ivory, tortoiseshell, and jewels. (see also Index: jewelry)

More commonly used buttons were of bone and wood, and button forms of these materials were also used as foundations for fabric-covered buttons. Coarse thread buttons were made by wrapping the thread over a wire ring. In the 18th century luxury metals and ivory largely replaced fabric, although embroidered buttons in designs to complement particular garments were popular. Pewter, the familiar metal of the age, was used to make molded or stamped-out buttons; but these were scorned by the wealthy. Cast brass buttons, particularly calamine brass, with ornamental and distinguishing designs, also became popular on both military and civilian dress. (see also Index: decorative art)

In the middle of the 18th century, Matthew Boulton, the English manufacturer and partner of James Watt, introduced the bright, costly, cut-steel button, which was made by attaching polished steel facets to a steel blank. In France the facets of the cut-steel button were elaborated by openwork designs. During the first quarter of the 19th century, a less costly stamped steel button was made in an openwork pattern. Brass buttons gilded by dipping in an amalgam of mercury and gold also became popular.

The two-shell metal button was introduced about the same time as the stamped-steel type by B. Sanders, a Danish manufacturer in England. The two shells, thin metal disks enclosing a small piece of cloth or pasteboard, were crimped together on the edges. Sanders also originated the canvas shank. By 1830 fabric-covered buttons were being made mechanically. Also coming into use were animal horns and hoofs, which could be plasticized by heat and cut, dyed, and molded.

Buttons were also made of ceramics and glass. Porcelain buttons became a French specialty; they were decorated by hand painting or by the transference of designs in coloured inks from tissue paper. Bohemia, in the present-day Czech Republic, produced most of the coloured glass used in button manufacture.

In Japan, ceramic buttons, hand painted in traditional motifs, were developed. Buttons with an intricately carved thickness of vermilion lacquer on a wooden base became a Chinese specialty, and decorated and lacquered papier-mch buttons became popular in Europe in the late 1800s.

The use of pearly shells of sea mollusks in button making increased with the mechanization of production. Shell was separated into its component layers by treatment with a nitric acid solution, and blanks were cut out by tubular saws. Holes were bored in the blanks for sewing, and an engraved decoration was mechanically applied. At first only seashell was used, but in the 1890s the American manufacturer John F. Boepple began to use the less iridescent but abundant freshwater mussel shells found along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Vegetable ivory buttons made from corozo nutmeats, the fruit of a South American palm, began to appear in the mid-1800s. Thick slices are cured in kilns and processed similarly to shell buttons.

In the 20th century, buttons became primarily utilitarian, not decorative, and in many applications were supplanted by the zipper (q.v.). Modern buttons are made of plastics such as cellulose, polystyrene, and polyvinyl resins; designs are usually abstract or geometric. Mass-production machines produce molded buttons either by compressing powdered plastics or by injection--forcing liquid plastic into individual molds through small openings.

Old buttons are increasing in value and are collected for their art and workmanship. The place, date, and name of the maker are usually marked on their backs.


In the pre-Constantinian church (before the early 4th century), no distinctive liturgical dress was worn, and the Eucharist (Holy Communion) was celebrated by priests whose dress did not differ from that worn by lay members of their congregations. Present liturgical vestments in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches derive from a common origin--i.e., the garments that were fashionable in the late Roman Empire. After the Schism of 1054, however, they each followed separate courses (see also CHRISTIANITY).

Roman Catholic religious dress.

A distinction is made between the insignia of ecclesiastical and sacerdotal office in the hierarchy and the functionally and symbolically significant liturgical robes. After the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire from the 4th century on, fashions in secular dress changed, and thus the clergy became distinct in matters of dress from the laity. Certain robes indicate a position in the hierarchy; others correspond to function and may be worn by the same individual at different times. The most important vestment among the insignia is the stole, the emblem of sacerdotal status, the origin of which is the ancient pallium. The stole originally was a draped garment, then a folded one with the appearance of a scarf, and, finally, in the 4th century, a scarf. As a symbol of jurisdiction in the Roman Empire, the supreme pontiff (the pope, or bishop of Rome) conferred it upon archbishops and, later, upon bishops, as emblematic of their sharing in the papal authority.

The distinctive garb of the liturgical celebrant is the chasuble, a vestment that goes back to the Roman paenula. The paenula also was the Orthodox equivalent of the chasuble, the phelonion, and perhaps also the cope (a long mantle-like vestment). In its primitive form the paenula was a cone-shaped dress with an opening at the apex to admit the head. Because ancient looms were not wide enough to make the complete garment, it was made in several parts sewn together with strips covering the seams. These strips, of contrasting material, developed into the orphrey (embroidery), on which much attention was later lavished. Next in the hierarchical order after the priesthood were the diaconate and subdiaconate, whose characteristic vestments were, respectively, the dalmatic (dalmatica), a loose-fitting robe with open sides and wide sleeves, and the tunic (tunica), a loose gown. A priest wore all three, one over another. Under these he wore the alb (a long white vestment), held round the waist by a girdle, and around the neck the amice (a square or oblong, white linen cloth), with the maniple (originally a handkerchief) on the left arm. Although the deacon used a stole, the subdeacon did not. In the formative period of liturgical dress, these practices were in the process of becoming normative. During the 9th to the 13th century the norms now familiar were established. The chasuble became an exclusively eucharistic garment; the cope, excluded from the Eucharist, became an all-purpose festive garment.

Contemporary cassock Next in importance to the chasuble is the cope, a garment not worn during the celebration of the mass but rather a processional vestment. It is worn by the celebrant for rites of a non-eucharistic character, such as the Asperges, a rite of sprinkling water on the faithful preceding the mass. The origins of the cope are not known for certain by liturgical scholars. According to one theory, it derives from the open-fronted paenula, just as the chasuble derives from the closed version of the same garment. (The subsequent wide divergence between the two vestments need not preclude a common origin.) Unlike the chasuble, the form of which has never stopped changing, the evolution of the cope was complete before the end of the Middle Ages. Cope chests, based on the quadrant of a circle and designed to preserve the embroidered surfaces by keeping the copes flat, were a common feature of medieval cathedrals. When it is worn, the two sides of the garment are held together by a morse (a metal clasp). The cope occupied an intermediate position between liturgical and nonliturgical vestments, the most important of which was the cassock (see photograph), the normal dress of the priesthood outside church ceremonies. When engaged in religious ceremonies, the officiant would wear the liturgical vestments over his cassock.

The tiara, the papal diadem or crown apostolic, emerged in the early medieval period; and the mitre (the liturgical headdress of bishops and abbots), the most conspicuous of the episcopal insignia, began as a mark of favour accorded to certain bishops by the supreme pontiff at a somewhat later date.

Like the cope, the surplice (a white outer robe) entered liturgical usage in the Middle Ages as a late modification of the alb. By the 14th century its present role as a choral or processional garment was established. With the passage of time, the length of the garment grew progressively shorter. The surplice was also associated with the monastic orders, but vesture distinguished only the order and not the kind of order. Eremitical (hermitic) monasticism allowed no standard form of dress to develop, and only communal monasticism, beginning with the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, enabled standardization to become possible. Monastic dress included habit, girdle or belt, hood or cowl, and scapular (a long narrow cloth worn over the tunic). The salient characteristics of monastic dress have always been sobriety and conservatism. The orders proved even more retentive of archaic fashions than the hierarchy, and, in contrast to the deliberate splendour of ecclesiastical vestments, monastic dress was expressive of a renunciation of luxury. The contrast was functional in origin: the menial tasks of the monk related him sartorially to the peasant, whose humble avocations he often duplicated, rather than to the princes and prelates of the church, whose dress reflected the splendour of the ceremonies in which they engaged.

Because of the diversity of the monastic orders, only a summary account of their vesture may be given. The Benedictine mantle was black, fastened with a leather belt; but the Cistercians--reformed Benedictines--eschewed any dyed material and instead dressed in undyed woollen material, which was off-white in colour. In the course of time this became white, a tacit relaxation of the primitive austerity adopted as a protest against "luxury." Carthusians, a contemplative order founded in the 11th century, likewise wore white. In the 13th century the mendicant orders (friars) emerged. The Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assisi, first used a gray habit, which in the 15th century was exchanged for a brown one; in spite of this change they continued to be known as the Grey Friars. The Carmelites, an order founded in the 12th century, became known as White Friars. Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic from Spain, adhered from the beginning to a black robe over a white gown. Canons regular (communal religious persons living under vows), although ordained, lived like the orders under a rule, and the Augustinians (several orders following the Rule of St. Augustine) are styled Black Canons in contradistinction to the Premonstratensians, or White Canons, an order founded by St. Norbert in the 12th century. Because the office (prescribed prayers) took up so much of a monk's time, his choir robes were almost as important as his day clothes. Surplices were worn in choir with an almuce over; this last was a lined shoulder cape designed to help the wearer resist the cold of medieval churches.

Nuns' costumes were similar to those of monks, the chief difference consisting in the replacement of the hood by a wimple (collar and bib) and head veil. Habits are white or black or mixed, and this remained unaltered until the 17th century, when the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul introduced blue. This exception remained unique; nuns' habits retained a markedly medieval aspect until reformed by the second Vatican Council (1962-65). (see also Index: Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Daughters of)

The cassock has its origin in the barbarian caracalla, a robe favoured by the Roman emperor Bassianus (reigned 211-217), who came to be known as Caracalla because of the garment he habitually wore. Worn by the clergy as early as the 5th century, it became in time the standard day wear for prelates and priests, hierarchical rank being indicated by colour: bishops, archbishops, and other prelates wore purple; cardinals, red; the pope, white; and ordinary clergy, black (see also ROMAN CATHOLICISM).

Eastern Orthodox religious dress.

The Middle Ages also witnessed the evolution of Eastern Orthodox vestments into approximately their present form. The eucharistic garment corresponding to the chasuble was the phelonion, with variant forms in the Greek and Russian churches. The sticharion, which is held by the zone, or girdle, corresponds to the alb. The cuffs, or epimanikia, which fit over the sticharion, bear little or no resemblance to the maniple. The epitrachelion is the Orthodox equivalent of the stole, but it hangs straight instead of being crossed over the chest, as is the case with the stole in Western churches. On the deacon, the epitrachelion is pinned to the left shoulder and hangs in front and behind; with this exception, the deacon's vesture is identical with the priest's. The bishop wears an omophorion, whose shape and manner of wearing are closer to the original pallium than either the stole or the epitrachelion. In place of the phelonion, since the 16th century, the bishop uses a dalmatic known as the sakkos. The epigonation, or rhombus-shaped portion of silk hanging to below the right knee, is common both to bishops and archimandrites (head abbots).

The monastic habit of the monk differs according to which of the three grades he occupies. The fully professed monk wears the great, or angelical, habit, which consists of the inner and outer rhasons, girdle, cowl (with veil), analvos, and mandyas (mantle). The inner rhason corresponds to the cassock and, like it, is used by the secular clergy. The outer rhason, a wide-sleeved garment, is black in the Greek Church but variable in colour in the Russian Church among the secular clergy (i.e., those who minister in parishes). The analvos (shaped like the Western scapular, although historically unconnected with it) differentiates the full, or perfect, monk from the other grades, and its substance must be of animal, nonvegetable origin to remind the wearer constantly of death. The mandyas is the bishop's cloak (for non-eucharistic occasions), and in the Russian Church its use is granted to monks of the intermediate grade, although this license does not obtain in the Greek Church. In neither church may the mandyas or analvos be worn by monks of the lowest grade. Unlike Western orders, Orthodox monks dress only in black, but they share the same sartorial conservatism, their habits having remained unchanged in essentials from medieval times to the present (see also EASTERN ORTHODOXY).

Protestant religious dress.

The Reformation of the 16th century varied in intensity from one country to another, and the fate of liturgical vesture suffered accordingly. With the rejection of the dogma of transubstantiation (the Roman Catholic teaching that in the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ, with the properties of the bread and wine remaining the same), the use of the mass garments might have been expected to be eliminated, but, wherever an altered eucharistic doctrine survived, an attenuated liturgical vesture contrived to survive with it. In the case of the Anglican and Lutheran churches, a paradoxical situation emerged whereby, in the latter, pre-Reformation practices (e.g., use of crucifixes) survived alongside a Reformation theology, whereas, in Anglicanism, a Catholic theology survived along with a repudiation of Catholic rites. The Lutherans rejected the insignia of a celibate clergy but retained the chasuble for Communion services and the surplice and alb for other services. (see also Index: Protestantism)

Bishops in both Lutheran and Anglican communions retained the cope. The different editions of The Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican liturgical book) attest to 16th-century reforms and the rising power of Puritanism, a 17th-century reform movement; the use of vestments declined in consequence. The cathedrals, however, maintained liturgical vestment standards to a certain degree, even when the last vestiges of liturgical propriety had been extinguished in the parishes in the 18th century. The cope became the High Church (liturgically oriented) vestment par excellence, worn by bishops not only processionally but even during Communion. Many views about the ceremonial revival of the 19th century have not in all respects been accurate; and followers of Edward Pusey, a leader of the Catholic revival known as the Oxford Movement, and ritualists sometimes blundered not from excess of archaeological zeal as has been commonly supposed but rather because they were inordinately influenced by their sociocultural environment. This may be less immediately obvious in the case of vesture than in architecture, but one result of overreacting was the loss, in the 19th century, of the customary dress of the clergy. The gown and cassock, as street attire, were allowed to fall into desuetude because in Puseyite views the gown was Genevan, whereas in reality it was the reverse. Another instance lay in the adoption of the (local) Roman biretta, introducing an Italian fashion even though adequate indigenous precedents were not lacking.

The gown, now inseparably associated in the popular mind with Genevan (Reformed) divines, was in fact opposed by these same divines in England and Scotland in the 17th century. In spite of this, standard vesture in Presbyterian churches is now the black gown and white linen bands over cassock and cincture, with the academic hood added for preaching services as a mark of learning appropriate to the pulpit, and a stole or scarf (see also PROTESTANTISM).

Modern changes in religious dress and vestments.

With a change in emphasis, chiefly expressed in the episcopal use of the cope, Episcopalian usage in the first half of the 20th century differed little from Catholic rules except in Anglo-Catholicism, in which deliberate archaism imposed an adhesion to Baroque (17th to early 18th century) models, themselves superseded within Roman Catholicism. The Liturgical Movement of the 20th century has exercised an influence beyond the boundaries of the church in which it originated, and modern clerics of different denominations increasingly resemble one another sartorially because all have had recourse to the same sources of liturgical inspiration.

In Roman Catholicism, the formative period of religious dress was over before the Reformation, and Reformation influence was indirect--via the impetus supplied by the Counter-Reformation, which made Baroque its official art style. The emphasis on richness of material, excessive decoration, and preoccupation with surface set in motion a process of decline that was not arrested till the 20th century. The degeneration of the Gothic chasuble with its pointed folds into a stiff fiddle-backed, overembroidered vestment had begun as early as the 13th century with the practice of elevating the Host (sacrificial elements) in the mass. The elevation of the Host entailed the folding back on the celebrant's shoulders of the sides of the chasuble. The flexibility of the early chasuble permitted this, but, to facilitate the elevation, more and more material was removed from the sides until the garment became a caricature of its primitive form, distorted beyond recognition and its vestigial portions--dorsal (back) and pectoral (front)--came to be viewed simply as canvases for the display of virtuoso embroidery. Undergarments also became what is now viewed as effeminate with the addition of lace, and, although the Liturgical Movement began with a new theology of the Eucharist, its repercussions forced a decline of the Baroque style in dress.

From the late Middle Ages to the 20th century, the history of religious dress in the Roman Catholic Church has been the history of its rubrical evolution: the regional variants of patristic (early church) and early medieval times were eliminated in the interest of ultramontanism (a theory that advocated a greater authority for the papacy), until the second Vatican Council reversed the process of eight centuries, again sanctioning regional divergences. Council rulings also simplified the use of the mitre and suppressed the use of the maniple altogether. Increased lay participation in the liturgy has led to an extension of lay religious dress in more than one communion. To lay offices such as the verger, who wears a gown over cassock, and chorister, who wears a surplice, Anglicans have added that of the lay reader, who vests in cassock and surplice, with a scarf as his ensign.

The upheavals of the 16th, 19th, and 20th centuries have not had much effect on Eastern Orthodox vesture, and the same canons (rules) prevail today in Orthodoxy as obtained prior to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. To ascribe this condition in Eastern Orthodoxy solely to the effects of cultural isolation would be an oversimplification. Suppression of vestments or their alteration is less likely to occur in a church in which such vestments have higher symbolic value attributed to them than in other traditions.

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