Posted by: mattcolvin | December 1, 2013

Who Really Invented the Clerical Collar?

Matt (R) and Fr. Wayne McNamara discuss the uses of ecclesiastical bling and rapping. Both men are wearing clerical collars.

Matt (R) and Fr. Wayne McNamara discuss the uses of ecclesiastical bling and rapping. Both men are wearing clerical collars.

My friend Lue-Yee Tsang has a good post up urging caution in the use of the clerical collar. It is similar in broad outline to the earlier post, A Short History of the Wearing of Clerical Collars in the Presbyterian Tradition by Timothy LeCroy. It is interesting to note that these two posts differ from each other on one matter – but it is a crucial one: namely, whether the clerical collar has its origins in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism.

Pastor LeCroy says:

Councils of the Roman Catholic church after the time of the Reformation stipulated that the common everyday attire for priests should be the cassock. Up until the middle of the 20th century, this was the common street clothes attire for Roman Catholic priests. The origin of the clerical collar does not stem from the attire of Roman priests. Its genesis is of Protestant origin.

Thus, Pastor LeCroy implies that special collars were not present in the Roman Catholic church, the clergy of which wore cassocks instead. By contrast, Lue-Yee Tsang quotes the Banner of Truth website:

In 1976 the Church of England’s Enquiry Centre produced an A4 sheet concerning the use of the ‘dog collar’ among the clergy. Apparently, it had been invented, they said, quoting the Glasgow Herald of December 6, 1894, by the Rev Dr Donald McLeod. Something similar, the Roman collarino, dated, perhaps, from the 17th century. The Oxford Movement of the 19th century led to the adoption by many Anglican clergy of a clerical collar, certainly by the time of the First World War.

The Glasgow Herald of December 6, 1894 is actually available on Google. The relevant article is near the bottom of the second page, in the middle, detailing the proceedings of a Presbytery meeting. Near the bottom, there is a blurry section of too-dark type that appears to be titled, “The Use of Vestments”. Unfortunately, the quality of the scanned document is poor, and the text is mostly illegible. It clears up again at the top of the third column:

(Mr. Anton speaking, about the Church of England:) Not only in the Prayer Book, but by Acts of Parliament, they had settled the question of what robes should be used by the officiating clergymen. Before they could go into this motion of Mr. Somerville they must settle the preliminary question of what were the robes sanctioned by the Church of Scotland.

Mr. Robert Thomson – None.

Mr. Anton said that was just the point upon which he wished to fix the attention of the Presbytery. They could not compel any person to use any vestment in the Church of Scotland, and it was beneath the dignity of the Presbytery to pass a resolution which they could not enforce. He questioned very much if the Geneva gown had any ecclesiastical sanction at all. Every vestment was of Pagan origin. If he was wrong, it was for the fathers and brethren to correct him. The Geneva gown lent neither beauty nor dignity to the form of the preacher. Did they imagine that the proportions and appearance of their friend the minister of Govan would be improved by wearing a Geneva gown.

Mr. Robert Thomson – It would.

Mr. Anton said that in his opinion neither the dignity nor the appearance of the wearer was improved by the Geneva gown. The Geneva gown must have been brought into use by people who never considered that the clergy of the Scottish Church were to consider oratory as a fine art. That was the position they occupied with regard to the Geneva gown, and it appeared to him that the wearing of the Geneva gown in a lawless manner, as they had been doing, was a witness of the patience, and a witness of the longsuffering of the people in the Church of Scotland. He was not speaking against vestments. He was speaking strongly in their favour, and he wished that the Presbytery should take the present opportunity of seeing that they went into the matter thoroughly, with the view of securing that the clergy really did appear in pulpit and at ordinations in proper vestments. They should take into consideration at the present time the wearing of regular dress not only by the preacher, but also by the pastor. He had no sympathy with those preachers who walked about the streets in the garb of laymen. When a minister was going about his work in his parish he should wear such a distinctive dress that the people should not only that he was not a dissenting minister – (laughter) ––

Mr. Robert Thomson – Oh, dear me!

Mr. Anton said that he could not imagine anything calculated to do more good than that, when they were going about their visitations, they should, as captains and soldiers of the army of the Church militant, be in the eyes of all men identified by their uniform as belonging to that Church whose uniform none of them were ashamed to wear. He thought that in the work of the parishes, in going down the closes in cities and into such places, it would be a good thing that people should say, “There is a man who is a minister of the Church of Scotland; he is doing his work there.”

Mr. Somerville asked, in order that they might understand Mr. Anton, that the amendment should be submitted.

Mr. Anton said that his amendment was that the whole subject of ecclesiastical vestments – the forms, numbers, and decorations of such vestments, with the occasions of their service, be remitted to the Life-and-Work Committee – (laughter) – and that they be called upon to report on the whole matter by the February meeting of the Presbytery.

The amendment was not seconded.

Dr. Donald MacLeod pointed out that Mr Somerville had only suggested how extremely becoming it was that ministers should appear in a manner that was in harmony with the great duty of setting aside a minister for his work. These things did not depend upon clothes, upon gowns or no gowns. None of them thought that. As Mr Anton had said, it was, no doubt, true that the Church had not prescribed a dress. He hoped the Church never would. The Church in the past had had the great commonsense to leave the matter to the instincts of the ministers. Personally he had only one claim to immortality, and he was afraid it rested upon a fact known to no one but himself, and that was, he was first to introduce what was known as the “dog collar.” (Laughter.) In his youth, 39 years ago, he had introduced it. It was now recognized as the ecclesiastical collar. He hoped that his claim to immortality on that account would be taken notice of by the historians. (Laughter.)

Mr. Robert Thomson moved the previous question. Why, he asked, should the time of the Presbytery be taken up with such absurd matters as the question of clothes? As regarded the matter of going about their parishes or anywhere else with dog collars – (laughter) – he recommended each minister to exercise his own judgment as to what became him best.

The motion of Mr Somerville was then adopted, Mr Thomson protesting and appealing.

Now, let us note several things: Dr. Donald MacLeod (Mac, not Mc) says that he invented the dog collar in 1855, not in 1894. Second, it may be doubted whether he is in earnest or in jest. As I read the account of the discussion, it appears that Mr. Robert Thomson was pushing quite seriously for the Presbytery to mandate Geneva gowns. Mr. Anton was pushing quite as earnestly against such a requirement. Dr. Donald MacLeod, the moderator of the Presbytery, appears to be doing what senior statesmen in all ages have done with junior thunderpuppies at meetings of the clergy: defusing a tense situation by cracking a joke. While doing this, he also obliquely communicates to the overly earnest Mr Anton and Mr Thomson that quarreling over vestments is not something we do in the Church of Scotland.

It does not appear to me that Dr. MacLeod is in earnest in claiming to have invented the clerical collar. First, he says with mock pompousness that he hopes to be immortalized by history. For what? Ridiculously, for “a fact known to no one but himself.” He then says that he invented the “dog collar”, and after laughter has died down, he adds that it is now recognized as the ecclesiastical collar. More laughter follows. Clerical collars appear, then, to be already in use, and the claim to have invented them is a joke, nothing more. Very likely they arose by evolution, organically, from the cravat, as both Pastor LeCroy and Lue-Yee Tsang suggest, and no one can be credited with inventing them.

If the “Roman collarino” dated from the 17th century, then it looks much more doubtful whether we ought to credit Protestants with this fashion. The Romanists certainly don’t want to give such credit to Protestants. Here is an answer to a question from EWTN Global Catholic Network’s “Catholic Q & A”:

The history of the Roman collar is somewhat convoluted, but one can start by noting that the collar we know today is actually a fairly recent adaptation.

Roman collar traces its distant origins to the 15th century when clerics began following then current fashion of placing their linen collars over their outer clothing. This became accepted custom, and by the 17th century there were many forms of this linen collar, such as the ornate Roman variety, the collarino, of ornate and expensive lace, and the French adopted the collars worn by the noble classes, of linen and fine lace. As black was increasingly worn by clergy, the collar served as a one of the obvious elements in their attire. Church officials abolished excessive ornamentation for the collars, and a linen band was slowly used to offer protection against dirt and stains. This was the direct origin of the current collar, with priests using a softer style choker of cloth, sometimes merely a scarf; bishops and other prelates could afford a linen choker. From this came the embrace in Rome of the collar as it is known today. The collaro was of starched line that was approximately three inches wide and that was fitted into the rabbi (or rabat), the cloth fitted around the neck of a cleric and placed under a simar or cassock.

Today, the collar (usually made of plastic or linen) is most commonly identified with clergy of many denominations. In Europe, of course, many priests wear variations on the Roman collar. In the United States, an effort has been made in recent years to encourage priests to wear a black suit and especially the Roman collar as identifiable elements in their ministry.

Note that this Roman Catholic explanation, though tracing the origin to safely before the Reformation, essentially agrees with my Protestant friends about the origin of the clerical collar in the white neck cloths or chokers, covered over, except in the middle, with another garment (whether the collar of a shirt, or a cassock, or whatever).

I have further questions:

1. What is this Roman collarino? What did it look like? The Italian word also appears to be used of the necking grooves around the top of a doric column in Greek architecture. It would be interesting to know more about it.

2. How did the Roman collarino affect the appearance of the necks of clergy with cravats? Was it a competing fashion? Was it rejected by Protestants as a Roman fashion?

The Banner of Truth quotation also alleges – about as vaguely as possible – that the collar came into Anglicanism via the Oxford Movement. That appears plausible to me, but I would like to see it substantiated.

I wear a collar in Cincinnati, and will likely do so when I visit other Anglican provinces. Here in Mindanao, however, I’ve been advised that to wear a clergy shirt and collar here would be to invite kidnapping: White skin already means “This person has money” and the collar would add an additional inducement: “This person is affiliated with a larger organization, the Church, that could pay ransom.” I don’t know how true that is, but since the ministries I’m engaged in so far do not call for me to mark myself out as a clergyman, I have not worn one here in the Philippines.

On the topic of clerical garb: Since I’m returning to the States to be ordained to the presbyterate this week, I got my alb out to be cleaned by our helper. She was not a little astonished to see it.


  1. […] 25. Who Really Invented the Clerical Collar? […]

  2. Hi, Matt! I read your post and the scan of the newspaper article in question, and I acknowledge that your reading is possible. However, another possible reading is that there was some substance to his claim. It’s hard to tell what insider knowledge lead to the laughter of the presbytery. As Pastor Garrett Craw pointed out, MacLeod did wear a clerical collar, so the jury’s still out on this one:

    • Tim, feel free to argue for your view. I’ve given you all I really can say in the main post.

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