To find the origin of albs, cassocks, chasubles, robes, stoles, surplices, etc., we must go back thousands of years. Before internet shopping, before mail order, before department stores. Before Calvin Klein, before Burberry, (...you get the message), people's clothes were basically whatever was available to protect the wearer.
For about 99% of human history, animal skins were the most efficient, warm and hardwearing coverings. Then, about 10,000 years ago, roughly woven cloth from fibres such as hemp would be used to make lighter garments. They would still protect the wearer from wind-chill and the sun's heat, yet light enough for a man to chase animals and women (or to run away from animals and women!)
The next development was with finer fibres, such as cotton and silk. This required more time and skill to make, dyes would be used, braids and other decorations added, resulting in a more expensive material and therefore reserved for people with a higher social status. It gave less protection from the weather but this wouldn't matter to the higher classes in their superior quality shelters. The people with such a status would of course be the rulers and priests.
From old works of art we can see that Pagan priests wore such robes, but there is no evidence that these were copied for Christian liturgical use.
Indeed, during the early period of Christian persecution, it would have been difficult to wear anything distinctive. In addition, to distance themselves from the Jewish faith, Christian priests wore normal clothing, albeit cleaner and better quality than day-to-day wear.
Christian vestments developed later (around the 4th century1) as the Church became more established; first in the east and then spreading to the west.
Worthy of note are the various Biblical references to attire.
- From Exod. 28 we read how Aaron, elder brother of Moses and first High Priest of the Israelites, was given distinctive garments: A girdle and breastplate with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve precious stones to signify how precious we are in God's sight. Also a turban with a gold plate inscribed with "Holy to the Lord". These garments were considered holy, since they were emblems of the glory of the Divine majesty. And yet even though robes are holy, the New Testament explains that more important is our robe of righteousness in all we do. The garments of salvation are not of expensive gold. Salvation is free.
- Jesus warned of the scribes with their pretentious long robes (Luke 20:45-47)2
- A robe of compassion placed on the 'prodigal son' by his father when he returned. The robe restored him to a place of honour, symbolizing being clothed with Christ's righteousness and compassion 2 Cor. 5:1)
- A scarlet robe was draped over Jesus, mockingly imitating the purple robes worn by kings. (Matt. 27:28)
- Rev. 6:11 refers to the martyrs before the altar of God, who are given white baptismal robes, and in Rev. 7:7, the white robes of the redeemed.
From the above, it can be seen that robes are to be worn as symbols of humility.
The Church doesn't claim that any particular style of robe is by Divine command, but simply that special garb is appropriate for special circumstances. (See also Liturgical Colours) This is the same reason that Pagan priests of old wore vestments.
Vestments have always been simply a symbol of status. Even today, bishops and cardinals wear more baroque-style ensembles than priests (see also Pectoral Cross), and lay preachers usually wear an ordinary suit. Vestments are just a tradition passed down through civilization, and whilst considered Sacramental in the Roman Catholic Church3, the attire in itself has no power.
Even so, they are important. They are a uniform, concealing the distractions of fashionable street clothing and announce that the wearer is performing church duties.4
We started this page by saying that the origin of vestments is far from Christian. And this raises the question: 'So what?'
Christians believe that God created all things, including rituals and designs. Some of these we find aesthetically pleasing, such as hymn singing, wedding rings, icons, etc. Their introduction through ancient religious practices are all part of God's plan to prefigure; to prepare humanity for the great sacrifice of Jesus. (See Meaning of the Cross.)