The cassock, an item of clerical clothing, is a long, close-fitting, ankle-length robe worn by clerics of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Church, and some clerics of the Reformed, and Lutheran churches. The cassock derives historically from the tunic that was formerly worn underneath the toga in classical antiquity.
The word cassock probably comes from the word "casaque" which means cloak; or cassaca, which means white. In older days, it was known in Latin as vestis talaris.
Although the cassock was formerly the universal everyday clothing of the clergy, many have abandoned it as in favour of a clerical suit of more conventional design. In current usage, wearing of the cassock may be a mark of a traditional cleric; its abandonment, a rejection thereof. In the United States, the black clerical suit remains the norm for priests in public ministry, though the use of the cassock remains at their personal discretion and when worn is most often employed in liturgical services.
The cassock, also known as a soutane, comes in a number of styles or cuts, though no particular symbolism attaches to these. A Roman cassock often has a series of buttons down the front--sometimes thirty-three (symbolic of the years of the life of Jesus); an Ambrosian cassock has a series of only five buttons under the neck, with a sash on the waist; a French cassock also has buttons sewn to the sleeves after the manner of a suit, and a slightly broader skirt. A Jesuit cassock, in lieu of buttons, has a fly fastened with hooks at the collar and is bound at the waist with a black cincture knotted on the right side.
Generally the cassock can be attributed to the clerics of the Roman Catholic Church. There are two types of cassock: the ordinary cassock and the choir cassock. A band cincture or fascia is also worn with both types of cassocks.
The ordinary cassock seen on most Roman Catholic clerics is black with black fascia. Additionally, for prelates or honorary prelates, colored piping (keeping in mind that the cassock is still black) and the colored fascia are permitted. In the cases of bishops, protonotaries apostolic (e.g., monsignors), and honorary prelates, the piping is amaranth red and the fascia is purple; for cardinals, scarlet piping and fascia are the rule. Despite these distinctions, however, prelates, even cardinals, may make use of the simple black cassock in their day to day responsibilities.
In tropical countries, Papal indult has allowed the ordinary cassock to be white. The piping and fascia correspond to the appropriate rank of the prelate (black for regular priests, purple for honorary prelates, amaranth red for bishops and scarlet silk piping for cardinals).
Choir dress cassocks for bishops, protonotaries apostolic, and honorary prelates are fully purple (this purple corresponds more closely with a Roman purple and is approximated as fuchsia) with amaranth trim, while those of cardinals are fully scarlet with scarlet trim. The Catholic cardinal has the additional distinction of having both his choir cassock sleeves and his fascia made of scarlet watered-silk (also referred to as moiré). The cut of the choir cassock is still a Roman-cut or French-cut Roman cassock. In the past, the cardinal's entire choir cassock was made of scarlet silk moiré along with a train as well (some twenty-six inches which was later abolished by Pauline Motu Proprio in 1969). It should also be noted that the prelatial choir cassock usually means that for major prelates of the Church (bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) to be in choir they must also don the mozzetta and the rochet and only at occasions of the Church's liturgical life. For honorary prelates and protonotaries apostolic, their choir dress is merely their purple choir cassock and a surplice (unless indult has allowed for a rochet and mozzetta to be worn; in most cases this cannot be assumed).
A fascia, i.e., a wide band with fringe on the ends, is often worn around the waist of the cassock. The black faille fascia is worn by priests, deacons, and major seminarians, while the purple faille fascia is permitted for bishops, supernumeraries apostolic, prelates of honor, and chaplains of his holiness. The black watered silk fascia is permitted for priests who are attached to the Papal household, the purple watered silk fascia is permitted for bishops attached to the Papal household (for example, an Apostolic Nuncio), and the scarlet watered silk fascia is permitted for cardinals. The white watered silk fascia, with the appropriate coat of arms on the ends, is worn by the Pope.
The black shoulder cape over the black cassock is permitted only for priests. At the time of the restoration of the hierarchy in England and Ireland, Blessed Pius IX afforded this privilege to all priests in these countries. Consequently, the wearing of the shoulder cape over the cassock has been the sign of a Catholic priest in England, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand since that time.
Cassocks are frequently confused with the simar, but there is a distinction in that the simar has the small shoulder cape without buttons and does not fasten in the front. In previous times, cassocks also had buttons on the upper parts of the sleeves, thus providing another differentiation from the simar, but Paul VI dropped this custom, leaving the Cassock and Simar virtually identical, save for the small shoulder cape with the latter. Furthermore, the simar is garment of jurisdiction and is therefore reserved for bishops.
In cold weather, the manto, the ankle length cape---with or without shoulder cape, or the greca, also known as the douillette, the ankle length double-breasted overcoat, is traditionally worn over the cassock. For bishops and priests both the manto and greca are solid black in color, while for the pope the manto is red and the greca is white.
Cassocks are sometimes worn by seminarians studying for the priesthood, by religious brothers, by lay people when they are assisting with the liturgy in church, such as altar servers, and by members of choirs (frequently with cotta or, more usually in Anglican churches, surplice).
An Anglican cassock is often double breasted (then more correctly called a "sarum"), fastening at the shoulders on the opposing side of the breast. The single-breasted cassock worn by Anglicans sometimes has thirty-nine buttons rather than the Roman complement of thirty three. This is often said to signify the Thirty-Nine Articles, but may have developed from an older fashion.
In Anglican churches, a black cassock is the norm, but other colors and variations are common. Canons often choose to wear a black cassock with red piping, and, likewise, deans and archdeacons, black cassock with purple piping. Bishops traditionally wear purple cassocks. However, some bishops, particularly Rowan Williams, have recently chosen regularly to wear black cassocks. This is perhaps due to closer ties with Eastern Orthodox churches and a desire to emphasise simplicity and humility over rank. Scarlet cassocks are properly worn only by Chaplains to the Queen and by members of Royal foundations such as Westminster Abbey.
In Scotland, it is not uncommon to see full-length cassocks worn in the blue of the Flag of Scotland, which is also tied to the academic dress of the University of St. Andrews (close to azure. Over this is typically worn a preaching gown or the academic gown of the minister. During the Edwardian and Victorian era, it was common to see a shortened, double-breasted black silk cassock worn under the gown. It generally reached to the knees and was tied with a simple cincture. The American Geneva Gown is often supplied with a cuff sewn into the double-bell sleeve. This innovation is a remnant of the cassock sleeve that was formerly worn underneath.
In Eastern Christianity there are two types of cassock: the Inner Cassock and the Outer Cassock or Rason. Monastics always wear a black cassock. There is no rule about coloration for non-monastic clergy, but black is the most common. Blue or grey are also seen frequently, while white is sometimes worn for Pascha.