Liturgical and ritual dress, as distinguished from everyday clothing, is an intuitive feature of many religions and cultures throughout history, including ancient Hebrew worship, where the priestly garments were specifically prescribed by God. In the earliest decades of the Christian Church when the Faith was still persecuted by the Roman Empire, there was no official system of clerical dress. After the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, however, traditions of liturgical dress soon began developing which would eventually solidify into a distinct set of vestments with rubrics and prayers for their donning, often with mystical interpretations applied to them, attaching to them spiritual and Christological significance.
The Cassock, though not strictly a liturgical vestment, is the base garment worn by all the clergy and servers. It completely covers the regular clothing from the collar to the heels, and is almost always black. It is related to the habit which monastics wear, and so can symbolize “dying to self” (Mt. 16:24-25; Gal. 5:24).
The Amice is a small, rectangular cloth which the clergy wear over their shoulders, buffering the precious material of their outer vestments from their necks. It was originally placed on the head, draping down to the shoulders as the other vestments were put on, only then being pushed down to the neck at the start of Mass, forming a sort of hood. The prayer used while putting on the amice refers to “the helmet of salvation” (Eph. 6:17).
The next garment is the Alb, from the Latin “albus" meaning “white.” This ankle length, tunic-like garment symbolizes the “new man” (Eph. 4:24) which is put on in baptism, and is reminiscent of the white baptismal garment.
The Cincture is the belt that binds up the flowing Alb, made of a
simple cord with tassels at the ends. It represents the purity of the
office of its wearer, thus the prayer said while tying it: “Gird me,
O Lord, with the belt of purity…”
The Maniple is a small, ornamental cloth that hangs from the priest’s (and deacon’s) left arm, which formerly served the primary purpose of a handkerchief for wiping sweat. It reminds them that in order to reap in joy they must be willing to sow in tears (Ps. 126:5-6). The prayer for the maniple is: “May I be worthy, O Lord, so to bear the maniple of tears and sorrow, that with joy I may receive the reward of my labor.”
The Stole is the distinguishing mark of the major holy orders of deacon, priest, and bishop, serving as a symbol of service to God. Deacons wear this yoke over their left shoulder, joined at their right hip. Priests and bishops wear it around their neck, falling either straight down or crossed over their chest and fastened by their cincture.
The Chasuble is the final Eucharistic vestment of the priest, largely covering all the rest. In its earliest style, it was a very capacious garment (thus the Latin name “casula,” meaning “little house”), and often has embroidered onto it some form of a cross. It is meant as a garment of “charity,” paradoxically lightening the clerical burden (represented through the stole). Its prayer references Christ’s “easy yoke” (Mt. 11:30).
The Biretta is the traditional cap of the clergy (Subdeacon, Deacon, Priest, and Bishop), worn in procession and when seated during readings or Psalm singing, but never during sacerdotal actions (prayers).
The Dalmatic, worn by the deacon, and Tunicle, worn by the subdeacon, are large, encompassing garments distinguished from each other by degrees of ornament, often with one horizontal band for the Tunicle (subdeacon) and two for the Dalmatic (deacon). These are festal vestments, and thus are properly set aside or replaced with a cut-back or folded chasuble in penitential seasons.
The Surplice is a white garment falling no farther than the knees, worn by all Alter servers over the Cassock, and by clergy in place of the Alb during processions and the Divine Offices.
The Cope is worn by the priest in processions, during the divine Offices, and in the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.