Where priests get their clothes

On the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, near the gritty but gentrified neighborhood of Echo Park, nuns sit at sewing stations making garments for the clergy

Rev. Brendan Busse at his ordination in June. He felt nervous nine years ago when he bought his first clerical shirt. (Photo: Courtesy of Father Brendan Busse)

Rev. Brendan Busse broke into a sweat the first time he shopped for a clerical shirt. He had nine years to go before he would become a priest, and the idea of wearing the black collar and white tab that would prompt strangers to call him “father” unnerved him.

He recognized that those “clothes are not just about me,” as he wrote in a 2012 Jesuit Post essay. “They are about my relationship with everyone out there. When I wear that black clerical shirt in public, when I pull that white tab across my throat, I am giving myself to them. The people I encounter then, they no longer see the ‘me’ I’d like them to see…Instead, they see ‘priest.’”

The Sister Disciples of the Divine Master in Los Angeles made these stoles for the clergy. Photo: Nadra Nittle

The eccentric John the Baptist wore a camel hair frock with a leather belt, and Jesus told followers not to care about their clothing. Yet what the clergy wear has been a topic of interest for the church and the laity for centuries. Last year, when news spread that a priest wore a pair of Yeezys during a church service, it sparked outrage. Catholics questioned the morals of a holy man who would sport footwear that costs several hundred dollars. But there was a plot twist: The priest was wearing knockoffs.

In contrast, Pope Francis made headlines for wearing a simple pair of black leather shoes to his first visit to the U.S. in 2015. That’s because his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, always wore the traditional red shoes befitting of his rank. Their styles may be distinct, but both men have earned honors from Esquire for their sartorial choices. In 2013, the magazine named Pope Francis “The Best Dressed Man of the Year,” and in 2007, it named Pope Benedict XVI “Accessorizer of the Year.”

The Los Angeles workshop of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master. Photo: Nadra Nittle

Unless they manage to score a pair of real Yeezys, your local clergy members aren’t likely to attract much attention for their style. But how they dress matters. Christian churches began imposing dress codes on the clergy as early as the Sixth century, and today religious leaders from high church denominations continue to adhere to guidelines about what they wear, both formally and informally. The clothing needs of the clergy spawned a niche industry led by nuns, family businesses, and suppliers. Launched as long ago as the late 1800s, these companies have seen trends in clergy attire skew from traditional to casual, witnessed a rise in demand for women’s apparel, and watched as leaders from denominations that did not historically require specific religious dress become top consumers.

On the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, near the gritty but gentrified neighborhood of Echo Park, nuns sit at sewing stations making garments for the clergy. In addition to praying for those in distress and feeding the needy, the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master make the religious attire known as albs, chasubles, surplices, and dalmatics. Producing vestments is one of the major responsibilities of the 93-year-old order and other nuns across the country.

Sister Clare of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master is new to sewing but managed to make these chasubles for the clergy in just a few days. Photo: Nadra Nittle

It takes Sister Clare, a recent transfer to the Los Angeles community of nuns, up to four days to make one priest’s robe. Given that she’s new to sewing, this is an impressive feat. But the sister, a Samoa native who’s lived everywhere from New Zealand to Fresno as part of the order, says she could work even faster if sewing were her only duty.

On a recent Friday, traffic buzzed outside the convent, silent except for the squawks of a caged parrot in the garment workshop. In the adjacent gift store, Sister Clare pointed out her handiwork — chasubles in white, green, and red with strips of embroidery in the middle. While it takes a few days for her to complete a simple piece, it can take her up to week to complete a fancier garment like a dalmatic, a tunic with ornate stitchwork.

“We don’t wait until they come in and ask [for the clothing],” she explained of their clients. “We continuously work.”

Full story at racked.com.

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  1. So, who makes the Hawaiian shirts I see sported by priests about town?

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