QUAERITUR: mixed choir in cassock and surplice

From a reader:

Perhaps you have already addressed this question somewhere, but as a choir director myself, I was bothered by something I saw on Corpus Christi.
In the midst of a trip away from home, I was worshiping at a large and beautiful cathedral blessed with an excellent choir.  The liturgy was done extremely well overall, but at the beginning and again at the end, the mixed choir — mostly women — processed into and out of the church wearing cassocks and surplices.  I was rather surprised because I’d always thought that this manner of dress was reserved to seminarians or at least to men to whom the priesthood is at least theoretically open as a vocation, but at the same time, this cathedral has a reputation for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  So am I just uptight, or did someone drop the ball?

It seems to me that this whole scenario is a reflection of the blurring of liturgical roles of clerics and lay people.

It may be that this is something that started some time ago and they simply haven’t had a chance to deal with yet.

While I don’t think there is any legislation that forbids the use of the cassock and surplice by women, it is clearly clerical garb.   In my opinion it is wrong for females to use clerical garb at any time and for any reason.  It is something akin to cross-dressing.  Only the deeply ignorant or twisted think of or call the cassock a "dress" or compare it to women’s clothing.

It might be objected that non-cleric males, such as altar boys, wear the cassock and surplice.  If them, why not females?   Males, at least, could be clerics.  Women can never be.  Males, obviously, more suitably substitute for clerics in the liturgy.  Females can sometimes do so, but only as an exception to the norm.

That said, while it is true that choirs fill a liturgical role – that was why before the Council there was need for permission for women to sing! – it is far more important that the sanctuary service be attended to in this regard.

Brick by brick.

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  1. gloriainexcelsis says:

    We have schola, choir and choristers at St. Stephen the First Martyr, CA. The men in the schola wear cassocks and surplices. The choir director wears cassock and, not exactly a surplice. It is more billowy, with long slit sleeves for ease in directing. If there is a name for it, I don’t know. The mixed choir and young choristers are in “civvies.” They dress up, as would be usual at Mass, the boys in slacks and dress shirts. When singing at a Mass in the Cathedral, for example, the girls and women wear white blouses and black skirts, the boys and men, black pants and white shirts. The schola wears their usual.

  2. RichR says:

    Our men’s gregorian chant schola wears cassock and cotta (like a surplice). I am curious if that is improper. We never get any complaints. We also avoid processing in and stay in the choir area. One pastor in the area does not like our uniforms and prefers we sing in church clothes. Would he be correct in asking us not to wear our outfits?

  3. TrueLiturgy says:

    Did the Second Vatican Council permit females in the choir, or was it done afterwards? Sorry, I have not read all of the documents.

  4. Hans says:

    Only one of the church choirs I’ve sung in for the last twenty-some years has worn anything other than Sunday dress, and that one was a plain brown (or was it dark purplish?) choir robe that wouldn’t be confused for clerical dress by any sensible person.

    When the issue has been raised, I’ve always argued against anything that could be confused with clerical garb, as there needed to be a distinction between roles. Surprisingly enough to me even then, even in the most (very) liberal parish I’ve been in (during the ’80s and ’90s), that position held the day.


    I don’t know the answer to that question, TrueLiturgy, but I’ve been looking through the old pre-Vatican II hymnals that we have in storage next to the choir loft, and most of those are arranged for four parts SATB. The exceptions are the few that came from the Benedictine monastery that originally sponsored the parish.

    And having looked through them (most have copyright dates from before WWII), I have to say that the modern trend of bad music and questionable lyrics began before Vatican II.

  5. Alice says:

    De musica sacra (1958) allowed mixed choirs outside the Communion rail. I’m pretty sure my mother’s parish had one before that, but it may well have been illicit.

    The traditional Catholic practice of ignoring the Pope except when he happens to agree with you predates Vatican II by over 19 centuries, I’m sure. :P Notice just how much of old St. Basil’s Hymnal is for women’s voices, even after the motu proprio of Pope St. Pius X. J. Vincent Higginson published a very good survey of American hymnals, which sheds some light on what was really going on with church music before Vatican II. It’s published by the Hymn Society, but I can’t remember the name of the book.

  6. JaneC says:

    Regarding SATB and “women’s voices,” please remember that not all sopranos and altos are women! Probably, it was anticipated that treble voice parts in these publications would be sung by boys. Of course, in practice that didn’t always happen. Not every parish could muster a boys’ choir. But that was surely the intent of the publishers.

  7. robertotankerly says:

    Looking through the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entries on the cassock and surplice, it seems to me that, historically, while they are specifically “liturgical,” there is nothing specifically “clerical” about them.

    From what I can tell it is simply a historical coincidence that cassock and surplice have been customarily reserved to males. Having converted to the Church from Anglo-Catholicism, I have seen mixed choirs in cassock and surplice, and there is nothing at all about it which strikes me as unseemly. On the contrary, choirs who are not vested seem inappropriate. The choir is a constituent member in the liturgical action, whether in stalls in a chancel, or a loft above the nave. Like the lay servers at the Altar, they are liturgical ministers, though not sacred ministers. Accordingly, they should be vested as lay liturgical servers.

    As wonderful (and even preferable) as it may be to have an all-male schola, or to carry on the English tradition of a boys choir, today the reality in most parish churches is that an SATB mixed choir is about the best to be hoped for.

    I, for one, don’t see a thing wrong with vesting all, men and women, in cassock and surplice. It actually seems more becoming than none being vested.

  8. Sorbonnetoga says:

    The Lassus Scholars (who frequently provide the music for the TLM chaplaincy here in Dublin, Ireland) have chosen to wear a maroon academic gown, similar to the BA garb of the various universities here. It looks well on either male or female choristers but avoids the “cross-dressing” impression that cassock and surplice would give.

  9. Gail F says:

    My nieces and nephews all sing in an Episcopal choir. They wear black choir robes (I don’t know if they are technically cassocks or not — they are not fitted) and short white surplices or cottas or something. They all look great! My point is not that they are correct or incorrect — they are Episcopalian, after all — but that they look really good (they also sing really good music). If the black and white outfits (whatever they are called) are not appropriate, I do think that something else other than street clothes is a good idea for a choir. Wearing street clothes just invites weird outfits and looks sloppy. And those awful polyester white albs we use for our servers just look terrible. I was at the ordination mass this spring and they even showed up there! Sad. There is a difference between “not fancy” and “really ugly,” I am surprised that we Catholics don’t seem to care. After all, we’ve been doing ceremonies for TWO THOUSAND YEARS, we ought to know how it’s done.

  10. tjtenor2 says:

    I have (unfortunately) sung in Episcopalian churches for several years now, and we’ve always worn cassocks and surplices (even the women), so I guess I wouldn’t see that as quite so weird. Not that Episcopalians are the ultimate arbiters of anything with regard to liturgy, but it’s made me used to this style of dress for mixed choirs.

    I also think doing this is a lot better than the alternatives, including the choir in my home parish, which wears plain robes that look like they belong in a Baptist church…ugh. Or the Newman Center I attended during college, where the choir (channeling the rest of the congregation) would often show up in jeans, etc.

  11. AndyMo says:

    The choir director wears cassock and, not exactly a surplice. It is more billowy, with long slit sleeves for ease in directing. If there is a name for it, I don’t know.

    It is a surplice, or more specifically, as RichR notes, a cotta. Instead of having enclosed sleeves, they are more like flaps that allow the director more ease in conducting and organ playing. Furthermore, his cassock is probably unlike the others, too. Underneath the buttons (which is a flap, actually) he most likely has a zipper, and it ends a few feet before the cassock reaches the floor. This is to allow hit feet greater freedom when playing the organ.

    I wear one of each while I play.

    It was always my understanding that cassock and surplice is male garb, though. When I spoke with a previous pastor about outfitting the choir with robes, he actually suggested cassock and surplice. I was able to talk him out of it, and go with a simple tunic instead.

  12. Tom in NY says:

    It’s easier to avoid any controversy with choir robes, if the choir is to wear special garb. There’s no surplice to iron (or send to the cleaners).Robes are available in “no-iron” fabrics. Also, most robes fit like American academic or judges’ robes, rather than a tailored cassock. These ideas may be a consideration for congregations which own the robes.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  13. uptoncp says:

    Of course, in an Anglican context, it helps that the mediæval tippet (scarf) has been retained, to differentiate between laics and clerics in choir.

  14. irishgirl says:

    In the mid-1970s I was in a choir where everyone wore robes. I think they were blue, white and gold. As Tom in NY says, they looked like American academic or judges’ robes, instead of looking ‘clerical’. And we sang upstairs in the choir loft-the only time the congregation saw us was when we came downstairs for Communion.

    But I’ve also been to the big Episcopal church in my hometown for choral services [Advent, Lent, Candlemas, St. Michael and All Angels]. The choir in this church, which has men and women, boys and girls, they wear a reddish-colored cassock with a white surplice (it may even be a cotta, as a previous poster said). The architecture of the church is Gothic, and the choir sits in a section that would fit in any Anglican church in England.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    There’s never been any uniformity in “choir attire” from what I’ve been able to tell.

    The Episcopal parish I sang in for 28 years wore red robes (not cassocks – they didn’t button, wraparound double breasted with snaps at the neck and a string waist tie) with a short cotta over.

    The choirs in the Episcopal cathedral where I sang for 15 years before that (and my parents sang for almost 50 years) wore very dark purple robes with white Elizabethan neck ruffs, plus little triangular hats for the women. No cotta. They seem to have changed some time after we left to black cassocks and cottas, at least in the case of the main choir (looks like the schola is still wearing the old purple but without the neck ruffs). I liked the deliberate nod to the old Chapel Royal attire better . . . .

    My parents’ current little country Episcopal parish wears black cassocks and short white cottas.

    Our Catholic parish choir wears plain purple robes of the wraparound variety. Unfortunately we are known as “Barneys” because the purple is exactly the shade of that cartoon dinosaur. The director wears the organist’s cassock and surplice as described above, in the same unfortunate color.

    Maybe we’ll get new robes soon — but we’d rather have a new organ.

    For what it’s worth – my opinion is that the choir should be differentiated from those in orders. But a choir MUST have some sort of uniform . . . because you need a ‘uniform’ appearance. Ordinary clothes just look sloppy and disorganized as a group, and “Sunday dress” is subject to far too wide an interpretation. I can think of a couple of our college age singers who probably don’t OWN a good suit. Plus you’re bound to have a couple of people in clashing colors next to each other.

    There are some hideous choir robes out there, though.

  16. wolfeken says:

    All of these issues are addressed by the last canonized pope in a motu proprio:


    Alas, Pius XII (Fr. Bugnini?) indeed caved into a growing set of abuses and allowed females to sing in the choir (but not in choir, as noted above).

    Until the 1950s, all music in a Catholic church was to be sung by men and boys. Every one of the great polyphonic Masses was written for males only, regardless of the upper ranges. (Yes, women did not sing Palestrina; sorry.)

    As Saint Pius X notes, the choir substitutes for a clerical role, just as an altar boy does, at Mass. That is why clerical garb (cassock and surplice) is worn. Now we find ourselves in a mess.

    While recognizing current law allows women to sing in a choir (as the law also allows a ukulele to play the greatest hits of Glory and Praise) we should really strive to restore the male-only choir as the norm at the TLM. Read what Saint Pius X wrote and it makes perfect sense.

  17. stpetric says:

    The surplice is derived from the alb, and so is arguably a clerical vestment. But the alb, in turn, alludes to the white baptismal garment (as is reflected in the traditional vesting prayer for the alb), with which both sexes are clothed. The cassock is technically not considered a vestment, but street clothing; and in its origins is not specifically clerical. If we follow this reasoning, there’s no real liturgical cross-dressing going on. The problem, I suspect, reflects confusion between a schola cantorum and a group of clerics in choir, exacerbated by the typically English placement of the choir in the chancel.

  18. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I am afraid I must object, since female servers can wear cassock and surplice.

    Peter Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite:

    The “ministers” or servers are those whose role is derived from that of the instituted acolyte. They assist in the sanctuary. {See footnote below] Their ceremonial duties are essential to good liturgy. […] As noted above, they wear an alb, or cassock and surplice, or some other approved vestment, but not secular dress.

    [FN] GIRM, no. 105. Male servers remain the norm, but the Ordinary may permit female servers within his diocese. See Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 47.

  19. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I cite the above with reference to the fact that female servers can wear cassock & surplice.

    Elliott is silent with regard to the dress of the choir.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Horrible image. I was a member of several scholas in my lifetime and we worn long skirts and simple modest tops. Clothing is symbolic, and the given symbolism above is indeed clerical. But, is this not in keeping with the attempt to “clericalize the laity” over the past forty years? I think what is described is icky and even arrogant.

    By the way, I prefer same-sex scholas-all men or all women, but most TLMs do not have enough people to do that, at least where I have lived.

    Men can wear the above, if desired, as again, that does not lead to a misunderstanding of the clerical role.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Given that “Catholics don’t sing”, same-sex scholas are a non-starter.

    It’s like pulling teeth to get folks to join the choir here, while in our former Episcopal parish the choir was audition-only (even members had to re-audition every year) and people were beating down the doors to get in.

    We need to get out the cudgels and the canvas bags and re-institute the press gang. Or at least send spies out into the congregation to find out who (if anybody) is singing.

  22. RichardR says:

    Bring back the castridi (a old tradition in the Church) and none of this would be an issue. I am sure Pius X would approve.

  23. AnAmericanMother says:

    Sure, Richard. You bet.

    The last of the castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, died some time in the 1920s, I believe. The only extant recording of his voice was made late in his life, when his voice had weakened with age, but it’s still a remarkable voice.

    First time I heard the recording, I had no idea what it was — I could tell it wasn’t a boy, but wasn’t a woman either. Very strange sound even when you don’t know.

  24. RichardR says:

    Well, we seem so eager to revive all the old traditions and return to the good old days, I don’t see why parents would not volunteer their sons.

  25. Alice says:

    Castrati: The Catholic answer to overpopulation in heaven and on earth.

    I’ll pretend to be favor of bringing back castrati, as long as we also bring back the traditional excommunication of those who perform the operation and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” tradition in hiring male sopranos.

  26. RichardR says:

    But it’s traditional, it’s Renaissance Italian, it is keeps women out of the choir. How can it be wrong?

  27. You don’t have to look uniform unless the congregation can see you. Unless you’ve got a choir up behind the altar, you don’t need robes. And if you’re up in a loft, you don’t want robes. It’s hot and close enough, thank you.

    And you’d have to wash them, and get them back. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that “wrinkle-free” is a cruel lie.

    Of course, I suspect my number one objection is that I’ve never been in a choir that wore robes, and never seen one wearing robes that wasn’t a gospel choir or imitating one. It’s just not something Catholics do in this area.

    Re: women’s choirs

    Palestrina wasn’t employed by an order of nuns to write music for their nun choir. So no, he didn’t write his Masses for women’s voices. He did write for castrati, though….

    Re: castrati

    How could it be wrong? Because it conflicted with Biblical law and tradition, and hurt boys?

    Castrati were used under the influence of that time’s culture of death, as represented by the high culture of the Roman/Byzantine Empire and many Muslim groups. Eventually, the Church decided not to wink at injustice for the sake of convenience, thus sparing boys the knife. Really, there are many lessons in that.

  28. Well, not “the Church”. Representatives of the Church.

  29. AnAmericanMother says:


    The congregation can see us just fine in the choir loft.

    There’s a separate stair (and an elevator) out of the narthex, so everybody who comes in late sneaks upstairs. Sometimes we have to shoo them out of our seats.

    We also give concerts and sing at other churches, often ‘down front’, so we have to have something uniform to wear.

    Not very many (if any) parish churches in the U.S. used to be monastic foundations, but some Catholic churches have adopted the Episcopal/Anglican tradition of seating the choir in the chancel (almost all the Episcopalians do — even my parents’ little Carpenter Gothic church in rural Georgia — because so many of the old churches in England were stolen from the various orders by Henry VIII!)

    You are 100 percent right though about the heat. A lot of us either wear Indian cotton dresses or shorts and a T-shirt under our robes!

  30. AnAmericanMother says:


    Don’t worry about Richard. He may not be a troll, but on this point he’s trolling.

  31. Hans says:

    Alice wrote:

    The traditional Catholic practice of ignoring the Pope except when he happens to agree with you predates Vatican II by over 19 centuries, I’m sure.

    Point taken.

    JaneC wrote:

    Regarding SATB and “women’s voices,” please remember that not all sopranos and altos are women!

    Indeed! I remember being able to hit that G above the treble clef. I don’t have the books handy, but going from memory I’d say there was a mix of intents in the different books. One was clearly intended for male voices only, while others were clearly not so (not counting the one that came from the Benedictine nuns), while I seem to remember one having a section that was indicated for male voices only.


    Alas, I have to go work on the plumbing now.

    For the house …

  32. New Sister says:

    Father – I like your comment about “cross-dressing”. I’ve been using that term as of late, in my attempts to explain to fellow parishoners why they should not mimick the priest by holding their hands in the orens (sp?) position during prayer, such s is comonly done (in the N.O. Mass) during the Pater Noster.

  33. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Upon further reflection [see my comment above], I do not see any reason why the choir should dress like the servers on the altar, be they male or female.

    I sang in the Gregorian Chant choir at St. John Cantius, and we had no need to wear anything other than good street clothes. I heard no complaints.

  34. Ed the Roman says:

    At St. James in Orlando a purplish-red cassock and surplice is worn, which never made me think we were clerics. The surplice was omitted for funerals and Good Friday.

    Since the Orlando summer lasts about seven months, it was nice to have something that did not compel complete street clothes to be worn beneath it, which a Geneva gown usually does. A cassock that doesn’t reach the ankles doesn’t fit, after all.

  35. wolfeken says:

    Rob Cartusciello — has anyone at Saint John Cantius read Pope Saint Pius X? From the fifth part of his motu proprio, on the singers:

    “13. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.

    14. Finally, only men of known piety and probity of life are to be admitted to form part of the choir of a church, and these men should by their modest and devout bearing during the liturgical functions show that they are worthy of the holy office they exercise. It will also be fitting that singers while singing in church wear the ecclesiastical habit and surplice, and that they be hidden behind gratings when the choir is excessively open to the public gaze.”

    Although not technically binding after changes made by Pius XII / Fr. Bugnini, it is worthy of attention when planning a traditional Latin Mass.

  36. patrick_f says:

    it comes down to the simple fact that Surplices and Cassocks are MALE CLOTHING.

    Men dont wear dresses or Nun habits..why should a woman wear a surplice

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