Many people think, “They seem so heavenly!” when they see choristers around the country. Many from our surrounding know them well understand that this is frequently just a well-practiced front! The choristers’ robes, however, are one of the most essential contributing reasons to such a cherubic and seraphic look. Maintaining them is no easy task, as choristers are notoriously messy and sound to nurture at an astonishing rate! Mrs. Jenny Watson is the choir’s devoted Robes Mistress, which we are incredibly lucky to have at Wells. This is an underappreciated task that goes behind-the-scenes at most cathedrals, and many people have no idea how big of a job it is! That is, until today! Jenny explains us ‘many parameters and elements of choir vestments you should know!’ after recently overseeing the purchasing and fitting of a whole new set of vestments for the choir.
New cassocks for the 2021/22 season
The choir recently received a brand new cassocks set, including 75 choristers’ and 38 men’s, thanks to the generosity of The Friends of Wells Cathedral. They were produced by Watts and Co., which was founded in 2015 and become giant suppliers of Clerical Robes.”
The choir wore a mishmash of five distinct types of cassocks, each with slightly varying bluish hues and various cuts, that had been supplied by producers over the course of many years. Huge quantity of cassocks was badly worn, patched, and showed visible hems indications being adjusted several times, were soiled and filthy that weren’t in the reach of dry-cleaning or laundry, and the linings were dissolving.
What’s the background?
Val Pitt took cared for year of Bristol Cathedral robes of choirs, had created a set of 19 boys’ and 15 men’s cassocks for the men and boys in the first trip to USA in 1990s. When the choirs of girls were come into tradition in 1997, another 18 were made to match, and another 6 were made for experiment when girls were to stay on invitation during their GCSE (around 16 years of age), rather than leaving after 9 years (aged 14 at that time, by which time boys’ voices had almost broken). Extra sizes were also bought as needed on a regular basis.
I dedicated hours adjusting hems, relocating buttons and collar poppers, and swapping belts since there was never enough. That material was eventually discontinued. The maker was retired in 1999, an incomplete and older set (created by an ex-chorister mum, hard to say when, pre-Malcolm Archer was the choristers and were wearing tatty and shockingly old cassocks at that time) came back into role, and remaining fabric and material from that order produced more quality cassocks in 2001 for girls, so that most choristers wore new cassocks. Meanwhile, some additional cassocks for small boys were bought by another producer to satisfy demand, we had five distinct produced in three quality fabrics in 2010, many of which were filthy and tatty after many years of rigorous use. It was clear that something should had done for this cause.
What did this comprehensive overhaul entail?
First, a lot of crunching had to be done, much of it by my good acquaintance Rachel Hewson, a former chorister parent with a PhD in data interrogation and re-presentation in a more accessible way. That’s really helpful! This demanded a slew of inconvenient scheduling! She looked through my 18 years of records, which were kept only to show who worn cassock for how much long time and what refits or adjustments I did to all with the passage of time. She ingeniously reorganized the data to offer us a large list of the possible sizes that had been produced as a result of demand changes, as well as how frequent and what’s the quantity of same size was needed at any instant. This was the most crucial section.
We next had to cut it to fit inside the budget, making sure we had minimum a single cassock of every size (or near to it) that had needed throughout time: Choristers who are under 42″ in length, as well as those who are above 56″ in length and either very thin (32″ chest) or very stout/buxom (40-inch chest), are unusual, but they do exist, and they deserve a comfortable and attractive cassock. They nearly all travel through a broad variety of intermediate sizes from childhood to adulthood.
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How much does it cost?
Cassocks for children in smaller sizes cost around £155 apiece, including the belt, and £16 per ruff. The surplices have not been modified, but if they are, the total cost of the costume will be about £225 per chorister, with extra costs for larger sizes (which include VAT) and more for the men’s: a man’s cassock would cost around £185, and their surplices will cost £65.
The new cassocks’ fabric is better than the one we had before: it was 100 percent polyester, which is easy to wash but sweaty to wear, melts if you stand too close to a heater, and won’t biodegrade once we’re done with it. So, with the aid of the Precentor, I purchased new cassocks in the same 45 percent wool, 55 percent polyester fabric as the clergy cassocks. It can be cleaned and dried in the machine without needing to be ironed. Wonderful! (As long as it hasn’t been washed in hot water, pressed, or tumble dried).
The SttL founders, in my opinion, attempted to avoid the gender issues surrounding liturgical attire by outlawing the cassock and surplice altogether for lay musicians. The underlying issue, in my opinion, is not clerical vs. lay (as SttL would have it), but male vs. female, which has not been adequately addressed in liturgical lay vesture since the post-Conciliar acknowledgement of liturgical equality for male and female lay musicians, to my knowledge. The old practice was that males would fulfil all liturgical duties, and that the cassock and surplice were the traditional attire for lay singers, who were assumed to be men or boys by the norms. There is no historical precedent to fall back on for female church singers (outside of convents, of course, where the sisters just wore their habits).
Because SttL did not become the official document envisioned by its writers, it appears that pastors and/or the local bishop make the final choice on what the singers should wear.
Personally, I don’t believe the choral cassock/surplice is gender-specific, and I like to see all singers dressed same. They should be vested in the dignified Roman Rite tradition rather of the ugly academic gowns and stoles if they are to be vested at all.