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The meaning & history of the colors of clergy shirts

Updated June 13, 2017

Clergy shirts are clothing that priests, pastors or ministers wear as street clothing. These are called "clericals," as opposed to "vestments," which are the clothing worn while conducting an official church ceremony or worship service. Clergy shirts are often thought of as Catholic, but they are Protestant in origin and can be found in many denominations.

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In Christianity, priests or pastors wore common clothing in the earliest times. As the Catholic church developed, black was often worn as a symbol of formality and seriousness. When Protestantism started, some groups continued the practice of priestly attire, while others wore the same clothing as everyone else. The clergy shirt itself is Protestant in origin, invented by The Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of Scotland in the late 1800s. The Catholic church adopted this later.


The clergy shirt is a Clerical, which refers to street clothing worn by members of the clergy. There are two types of clergy shirts: the neckband shirt and the tab-collar shirt. A neckband shirt has no colour, but has a band of cloth around the neck. The clergy collar is attached. The tab-collar shirt has a folded down collar with an opening in front, above the throat, which is where the clergy collar is seen.


Black is the most common colour among Catholics, and is the colour most associated with clergy shirts. In the tropics, some Catholic priests wear white shirts. In Protestant circles, various colours may be worn, and each denomination may have specific rules. The United Methodists, for example, have black as the standard colour and purple or maroon is reserved for bishops. Other colours may be used for street wear, but black is still the most recognisable.

Formal occassions

Colours are used to mark various seasons in the church calendar. Clergy shirts may be worn at times instead of the official priestly robe and attire. In general, white is used for baptisms, weddings, funerals and secular holidays. Red is used to commemorate a martyred saint, as well as for ordinations and installation of pastors. Purple is used for services of repentance.

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About the Author

James Jordan

James Jordan has been a writer and photographer since 1980. He has worked for newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Kansas, winning state press association awards for writing, photography and page design. In 1995 he received his master's in Christian education and completed two years of Ancient Greek at the graduate level. Jordan holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism.

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