Pricey outfit but no hint of frou-frou

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The Independent Online
A WOMAN'S wardrobe can be an expensive business, not least when you're one of Britain's new women priests.

Full clerical garb will cost the new female entrants to the priestly ranks of the Church of England an average of pounds 1,500 each.

Although women's new role may represent the greatest change in the Anglican Church for centuries, their arrival has done almost nothing to change its traditional, and expensive, vestments.

A sharp eye can detect the difference in a very few of the garments for sale at the Dickensian clerical outfitters J Wippell & Co, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

Wippell's now does a range of clerical blouses complete with accommodating bust darts, and some cassocks are cut in a tent-shaped A-line - 'for the womanly pear-shaped British figure,' says Alan Porter, the firm's manager.

However, most of what the well-dressed woman priest will wear is clerical garb unchanged, in some cases, for nearly 2,000 years.

It ranges from the chasuble, the coloured and ornamented poncho-style cloak which dates back to the 6th century, and the alb, the long white undergarment worn beneath the cassock which goes back to Roman times, to the maniple, the folded strip of fabric used by deacons to wipe the Eucharistic vessels, worn rakishly, waiter-style, upon the forearm, and which evolved from pre-Christian usage.

Women priests will be wearing these in exactly the same way as their male colleagues. Come ordination day, women do not don a special surplice, nor a special stole, nor even a special itsy-bitsy something that sets them apart from men.

The Rev Carolyn Walling, a priest for the past seven years (ordained in the United States), who has only recently been granted the licence to preside in this country, is quite happy about that.

'As long as it fits and it's comfortable, that's enough. Some women have tried to make it more feminine by adding jewellery and important- looking earings, but I see it as a uniform and I wouldn't want anything to detract from the significance of it.

'Anyway, it's not what we wear that's important, it's the people.'

Doesn't she feel any of those 'feminine longings' for a little frou-frou for herself and her sister priests which would set them apart?

''No. I like wearing the cassock and surplice. I think they look good on women. In certain situations people can also relate to this uniform: it makes them feel comfortable, it's significant, part of the ritual of births, deaths and marriages.'

There is no strict dress code which governs exactly what should be worn, although there is one rule dating back to the 74th canon of 1604 which decrees: 'Every clergyman shall be seen in the street in a black cassock and gown.' Tradition is what rules.

The full range of clerical vestments is quite bewildering and includes dalmatics ('with twin bridged orphreys and tassles at the shoulder'), tunicles, copes, cloaks, mitres, birettas, gowns, hoods, and rabat waistcoats ('a hybrid garment peculiar to the clergy, basically a chest-warmer with open back').

But most new women priests will keep to the same fairly standard range of garments. The pounds 1,500-or-so uniform (for which there is a discretionary one-off amount averaging pounds 500 set aside by each diocese) breaks down as follows:

Cassock (the everyday black outer garment): pounds 200.

Surplice (the white top worn over the cassock): pounds 60.

Alb: pounds 99.50.

Shirts or blouses (x 4): pounds 23- pounds 30 - approx pounds 100.

Chasuble (depending on amount of decoration, sometimes provided by the Church): pounds 450- pounds 2,000.

Stoles (woven from silk or cotton damask in four different symbolic colours, often given as ordination presents): four at pounds 80 each - pounds 320.

Cemetery cloak (made from heavy wool): pounds 230.

Preaching scarf (simple black scarf made from wool or cotton, descending from medieval liripype hat which was wound, in part, around the neck): pounds 40.

Skull-cap: pounds 15.

At J Wippell & Co they are keen to emphasise that tradition is not the root of all evil: it is something to be nurtured, respected and worn proudly, with understanding. 'I am very grateful that nothing has been invented for women. I think that any changes in clerical clothing are part of a slow evolution,' Mr Porter says.

(Photograph omitted)