QUAERITUR: What should members of a chant group wear?

From a reader:

I am a member of a men’s Gregorian chant group, and recently a local priest whose parish we were singing at voiced reservations about our uniform (black cassock and white surplice).  He preferred we not look like a performance group up front (there’s no choir loft), so we wore shirts and ties.  It did get me thinking, however,about proper clothing for a schola.

I have heard that it is not really proper for females to wear cassocks because it is clerical garb, and females can never become clerics, so we shouldn’t muddle the issue.  However, is clerical garb appropriate for a lay schola cantorum?

So… a priest thinks that a schola cantorum wearing cassocks and surplices looks like a performance group?

How can I put this delicately…

He’s wrong.

If a schola cantorum is in the loft, they can wear anything it pleaseth them to wear.  If they are visible in the sanctuary because they are singing something like Vespers, they should be in choir dress proper to males.

If there isn’t a choir loft… well… they have to be somewhere.  Where ever it is, they should not be in full view.  Let them be in back somewhere.

The cassock and surplice is, in my opinion never proper for females of any age.  Dreadful thought.   If there is a schola of women – and I am all in favor! – let them sing from the loft.  The issue of choir dress should never come up because they shouldn’t be in the sanctuary.

If there isn’t a choir loft… well… they have to be somewhere.  Where ever it is, they should not be in full view.  Let them be in back somewhere.

But… cassock and surplice on males in a schola cantorum makes them look like a performance group?

I don’t buy it.

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  1. wmeyer says:

    Recently, the newly arrived pastor of my uncle’s parish decreed that the choir must not be in the choir loft, but must be in front of the congregation. This, in a newly constructed church which the Bishop of that diocese commented would make a good cathedral. It surpasseth all understanding.

  2. wmeyer:

    It was once common for a choir section to be in front of the sanctuary. This is more common in Europe than in North America, at least with older churches. It would then be proper for a schola to be “in front” under those circumstances. Other than that, I agree with the good Father; choir dress is suitable for a male schola cantorum.

  3. wmeyer says:

    manwithblackhat: I also agree with Fr. Z. My comment on the placement of the choir, however, was by way of wondering whence comes the must in the direction to move them from a perfectly serviceable choir loft designed for them to an ad hoc organized space which was not.

  4. MJ says:

    We have a men’s and women’s schola; we all usually sing from the choir loft, but when we cannot (ie, for a procession), we women wear our usual “church attire” and the men occasionally do wear their cassock and surplice (I believe that not all of them own one, which is perhaps why they don’t always wear them…)…

  5. Precentrix says:

    Choir in choir should be in choir dress. How easy is that?

    If there are women, then obviously you aren’t in the sanctuary… in which case ideally you are in the loft and dress doesn’t matter overly. If there is a set-up where for whatever reason you are on display, then dress code between men and women needs to be coordinated somehow. The easiest is just to wear normal, smart clothes, perhaps with a coordinated colour scheme, but I remember Juventutem putting the lads in cassocks (blue) and the girls in matching capes with black underneath. It looked pretty swish.

  6. Gregorius says:

    For that matter, albs as clerical garb are also innapropriate for women to wear, yet the USCCB thinks it’s perfectly alright.
    Anyway, at least you have a schola. I’m stuck with the “contemporary ensemble” that uses these hymnals from the 70’s and the “mass of creation”, and features a piano, a violin, and often an army of guitars, sometimes a drum set too, RIGHT NEXT TO THE ALTAR. Did I mention that there is a perfectly good choir loft in this church, with a perfectly good organ, and even a perfectly good piano if they’re so desperate for it, but no avail. And the Director wonders why he can’t get any guys to sing with them.
    Then, the sanctuary has a beautiful high altar and a set of choir benches, but as they placed another altar near where the altar rails were for vs. populum and the celebrant’s chair right in the middle behind this altar, half of the sanctuary, including the tabernacle, is ignored for most of the Mass. In short, the deformations these ‘options’ cause throws the entire architecture of the church out of whack.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Women do not belong in the sanctuary, if the schola is placed there. Choir loft attire for our group is excellent, dress-up attire. Some small chapels with Latin Mass and no choir, have the schola in the back. I have only seen this with all men’s scholas. Color coordination is impossible in cold chapels and cold churches in the winter, when many of us keep on our jackets and coats while singing. Also, most of us who are in the choir or schola are not in a position to buy coordinated clothing, as 80% of the women buy their clothes at the Goodwill or Salvation Army for modesty and money reasons.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    PS Isn’t choir dress, like those horrible blue things at the Crystal Church, Protestant? I hate those outfits which either like high-school graduation smocks, or garish robes.

  9. AndyMo says:

    Sadly, our own country’s obnoxious instruction on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord, says this very thing:

    Choir and ensemble members may dress in albs or choir robes, but always in clean,
    presentable, and modest clothing. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not
    recommended as choir vesture. (SttL II E, 33).

    Almost hard to believe it couldn’t get Rome’s approval…

  10. lacrossecath says:

    At the La Crosse WI Cathedral we use cassocks for our 4 man schola(only once a month).

  11. I sing in the men’s schola, which sings in the choir loft. We do not wear choir robes, although I would not be against. However, I refuse to shave the top of my head like those guys in the picture!

  12. Precentrix says:


    Choir dress = what clerics wear when seated in choir. That is, cassock and surplice/cotta/rochet with or without other assorted bits, or habit for religious.

    In the UK, most of the well-known Protestant choirs will be in cassock and English surplice (full-length), sometimes with academic hoods, but usually their cassocks will not be black. A few of the university choirs wear academic gowns with or without hoods. The choir at Westminster Cathedral etc. wears red cassocks and cottas (cotte?) and the London Oratory choir, which is mixed, wears sort of cassock-y robes. NB in the case of academic dress we usually mean black undergraduate gowns (BA etc.) or black ‘undress’ for postgraduates.

  13. Choir dress is for CLERICS in choir, so laymen and laywomen singing in a schola should NEVER wear choir dress.

    If they must sing from a visible place–which should NOT be in the sanctuary because they are not clerics (and which may be front/side or back)–figure out a dress code. Perhaps suit and tie for the men, and a lovely veil for the women (matching veils, not skimpy). @supertradmom, been there, done that, know exactly what you mean re Goodwill. (Would anyone like to make and donate nice veils to the schola ladies?)

    I personally do not like the idea of any lay schola members wearing albs or cassocks/surplice or academic gowns, STTL notwithstanding. We are not clerics and should not look like them.

    I am a convert from Anglicanism and still work for Anglicans as choirmaster, so am required to wear a black cassock, a white full-length surplice, and my academic hood. (I look forward to the day when I will no longer need this job and it is possible to retrofit/cut down my cassock for a boy server, of which my parish has many; unless Father makes me burn it :-) Fortunately, in my volunteer role as a schola director, I and my schola have almost always been able to be in lofts; the men wear suit and tie, the women modest dresses or pantsuits and veils (and one knit-lace tam that is quite stylish and modest and appropriate).

    May we get back to more important things?


  14. Supertradmum says:

    I lived in England for many years and attended Westminster Cathedral choir services regularly, weekly, and my godson was in that choir at its height. I was married from the Brompton Oratory-know all about English choirs and was in one. I know all about English wear for choirs. I assumed this discussion was about American Catholic choirs and I suggest you look at what many of the cathedral choirs wear here-horrible Protestant robes. One must make a distinction between what Europeans wear and what Americans wear.

  15. Patrica: In this entry this is the important thing. I get to determine that this is important.

    Furthermore, it is good for males to wear cassocks in liturgical service.

  16. I think there is some confusion here (certainly not on the good Father’s part) over what is meant by the term “choir.”

    A “schola cantorum” (literally, a “school of singers”) is traditionally all male, not only because it is a clerical function (and here I mean “clerical” in the broad sense, as laymen are surrogates for minor clerics in this case, just as they are when they serve at the altar), but to preserve what is known as “purity of sound.” This is to be distinct from a polyphonic or other form of choir, which may consist of male and female voices — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and so on — and would not have a clerical function as understood here. Both are often seated together, usually in a choir loft, but their roles are very different.

    In addition, major and/or minor clerics often sit “in choro” vested only in surplice and cassock. Those major clerics who assist with Communion will don the stole of their office when the time comes, but even though they are “in choir,” they do not have a singing role as would the schola.

    To sum up, the term “choir” has a specific meaning in this conversation, and it is not necessarily relegated to a loft space.

  17. Supertradmum says:


    May I add, that in England, there are University Choirs, Cathedral Choirs, Monastery Choirs, Roayl Chapel Choirs, Parish Choirs, School Choirs, and commercial choirs. I have attended ceremonies with each group and each group has a different history as to their dress. The dress is not arbitrary in England, or in other European countries, sometimes determined by Royal Charter. These categories do not exist to the same extent in America, and, including scholas, this lack of discipline and history has led to various costumes, some of idiotic make-up. Mostly, at the EF in American parishes, what I have seen is either men in black suits and ties, in Protestant robes, or nothing particular. If women are in a choir, they usually wear their own clothes, or, if it is a semi=professional or professional choir, such as at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, they wear a uniform of some sort of long skirt an matching top. There is no historical reference to clothes, as in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales.

  18. cweaver says:

    Dear Patricia,

    I’ll not use “choir” in its musical sense to avoid further muddying the waters. I am not aware of the rule that restricts choir dress to clerics only. Many of the rubrics seem designed for communities of clerics or religious, but we have to make exception for the usage of smaller parishes. Our schola sings from the loft from mass, but we, laymen all, wear cassocks and surplices when we sit in choir for vespers. As far as I am aware, this is perfectly in line with how the divine office should be sung in small parishes.

    By the way, we had previously tried keeping the singers in the loft for vespers, but this proved so impractical in terms of the schola’s musical communication with the celebrant, and so removed us from the liturgical action (of which singing, in the case of vespers, is a major part) that we moved into the sanctuary after a few weeks.

  19. Supertradmum says:

    And, let us be clear that the Catholic scholas mentioned wearing cassocks and possibly surplices are all male and not female.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Sorry, I forgot to add that a teacher from New York came and did a liturgical music workshop for us and stated that some scholars say that the choir loft was invented, not only for acoustical reasons, or for the organ pipes and organ, but so that females could sing, as they were not and still are not technically allowed in the sanctuary for the EF. I am sure this is debatable, but interesting none the less.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Plain choir robes here, owned by the church and assigned by folder number to choir members. High collared, dark purple, obviously not clerical dress because they snap/button to the left side. No cotta or alb, no Elizabethan neck ruff (we had those at the Episcopal cathedral – very self-consciously imitative of the English – along with cute little tri-cornered caps for the ladies).

    We’re in a choir loft, never sing up front unless there’s a concert (with appropriate arrangements), but having a choir robe does serve two useful purposes: (1) uniformity of dress. Some of our younger members quite probably do not own a suit and will not until their senior year of college; (2) keeps the overflow crowd from infiltrating the choir (it would be all right if they would sing)!

    Lots of the older English churches and cathedrals were former monastic foundations, so had the choir stalls up front. The Episcopalians simply copied this practice, so quite a number of ECUSA choirs that I sang in were divided into Decani and Cantoris sides, with the organist on one side and the director on the other or in the middle. My parents’ tiny carpenter-Gothic Episcopal church in South Georgia is laid out this way. On the other hand, the Episcopal cathedral in Atlanta stashes the choir behind the rood screen and nave altar — and the organist used to have rear-view mirrors from a tractor-trailer on either side of the console (but now has a closed circuit TV).

  22. Supertradmum says:


    I love your detailed description of wardrobe and churches. I love the choir stall set up. Have you ever been to Lessons and Carols at Cambridge on Christmas eve, or to any ancient British churches with that architecture? The sound is fantastic. I lived in Sherborne, Dorset and we used to visit the church very often, as we lived two doors away. I have adorable photos of my son sitting in the ancient choir.

  23. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Having a choir robe to throw on over whatever I am wearing makes dressing much simpler. If the choir is going to be visible in any way, the uniformity creates less of a visual distraction during Mass.
    I have had both options over the years – choirs with robes, choirs without robes and I really prefer a uniform.

    Clerical garb is not appropriate for the typical parish choir with females. I don’t particularly hanker for the looks of a rockin’ Baptist choir in bright colorful robes and big white collars- something more subdued is in order for a Mass.

  24. Precentrix says:


    I would assume that all of those categories exist in the USA. While there may not be the same history, it would be my assumption that choirs in the USA whose churches derive historically from European ones would logically carry over their form of dress for the singers (e.g. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians of certain flavours) where they are dressed in any way differently to the congregation-at-large. Where academic dress is worn by Anglican choirs, it is quite possibly because ladies can (now) wear it too – and it therefore avoids the question of ‘can girls wear cassocks’ which, for us, isn’t a question, but is for people who sometimes think they can ordain women. I stand by the necessity of robes or at least some kind of dress code, in the hopes of covering up the fact that the kids are all wearing shorts and flip-flops.

    Where those hideous Baptist robes came from I have no idea. I’ve never seen any choir (loose sense) in Europe dress like that.

    Of course, we still refer in Britain to ‘vicars choral’ and even as a girl, I took that one seriously enough to start praying the Divine Office on a regular basis…

  25. JohnW says:

    Every time I see girls as altar boys it bothers me . They are wearing mens albs. I think it has been a big mistake to let girls be altar boys. I see less and less boys. When I attend the Tridentine Mass I see boys well trained and never a mistake. I was an altar boy and am very proud of the time I served. I don’t think it would have been the same as it is now. We must reform the reform.

  26. AnAmericanMother says:


    Lessons & Carols in Cambridge on Christmas Eve . . . . ! !!!!! I wish!

    We have been to St. Paul’s for Choral Evensong, though. Men and boys’ schola. Extremely well done.

    I adore the little English parish churches — although Sherborne Abbey is hardly little. The last time we were over, we spent a lot of time doing what my husband calls “poking about in churches and graveyards”. And museums, of course.

    I’ve been on another website trying to explain to a rather thick-headed evangelistic type that the average people of your average parish were not happy about their statues and rood-screens and stained glass windows being smashed — he imagines that everyone was on board with the whole puritan thing, unless they were an Oppressive Abbot or Bishop . . . . pretty hopeless, I know, but you have to do what you can.

  27. wolfeken says:

    Men/boys in the schola wear a cassock and surplice for the very same reason men/boys in the sanctuary serving the Mass wear a cassock and surplice — they are taking the place of clergy.

    Folks here need to read some Pope Saint Pius X:
    “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.”


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