Church fashion show program
This week's Met Gala proved that religious-inspired fashion can make a show-stopping spectacle. But for ecclesiastical tailor Rhyce Winterbourne, mass itself is already just that.
"It's a performance in itself … for the eyes of God," says the Sydney-based maker of clerical clothing.
"I grew up in a Catholic school and I saw all the fancy stuff on stage during mass, and was really impressed.
"When you're a kid you have a fascination about it because the clergy are just right up there, aren't they? They're a little bit supernatural in a child's eyes."
Mr Winterbourne entered the tailoring profession in his 30s and has been making religious apparel and accessories for the past 17 years from his store RJW Shirts & Ecclesiastical.
He's sewn thousands of cassocks — the full-length, usually black, garment worn by priests and rectors — designed hooded habits for Carmelite nuns, and even hand-stitched a bishop's funerial mitre.
A mitre, in case you're wondering, is the curved, pointed headdress worn by Catholic bishops, popes and — as of this week's Met Gala — Rihanna (according to Mr Winterbourne, the popstar's Maison Margiela mitre was far more bejewelled than the average religious headpiece).
Louder than words
Christ Church St Laurence rector Daniel Dries is one of Mr Winterbourne's long-standing clients.
He's a member of Sydney's "high church" Anglican community and, as such, can be visibly differentiated from his "low church" Anglican peers due to clothing.Photo: Christ Church St Laurence's cloakroom looks like a rainbow of robes. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty )
Simply put, high church clergy wear elaborate liturgical apparel — not unlike Catholic clerics — while low church rectors are allowed, sometimes even encouraged, to sport casual, secular clothes.
"When evangelical churches started to emerge, the whole idea that clergy needed to wear vestments and that churches needed to be decorated was abandoned and criticised by the Reformers," the Reverend explains.
"But we would say that the symbols that are used [and] the clothes that we wear are able to express things that we can't necessarily capture in words.
"When we wear vestments in a church service, what we're actually doing is taking away our personality — we're there in a role to perform a function, and it's not about who we are as individuals."
Albs and Cinctures: Demystifying coded clothing
The Reverend's individuality is clothed before every mass with a great number of religious garments.
First, he dons a black robe, known as a cassock or, in Catholic and high church traditions, a soutane.Photo: Mr Winterbourne says it takes him six hours to make a cassock from cut to finish. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
"The soutane has buttons down all the middle — it's meant to have 33 buttons for the years that Christ lived," he points out.
Next comes a cincture, or fabric belt, and a white piece of fabric resembling an apron that's known as an amice.
"You wear it over your shoulders and you're supposed to touch your head with it when you put it on," says the Reverend.
"It's meant to represent the helmet of salvation and protection from the devil."
"Then there's a white garment that goes over the top, called an alb, and then we wear another girdle or cincture."
Anglican clergy also wear a long silk stole, symbolising their place in religious office.
Bishops wear their stole hanging straight down, rectors cross the ends over, and deacons fold stoles on the side of their waist, signalling their position of service.
"When you're first ordained, you're ordained a deacon … and the idea is that people who would wait on table would have an apron at the side that they would wipe their hands on," the Reverend explains.
But the most elaborate piece of clothing worn by Anglican rectors is the ankle-length cloak known as a cope.
Decorated with embroidery, fringing and detailed beading, copes are made in a variety of hues to represent different stages of the liturgical calendar.
At Christ Church St Laurence, the colourful collection of copes takes up a small room.
"We have purple [copes] over here which are for Advent and Lent," points out Reverend Dries.
"In this church, the tradition is to wear purple for a funeral because it's the colour of solemnity and sorrow."Photo: In the Anglican tradition, the purple cope is worn for Advent, Lent and solemn other traditions. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
Gold is designated to Christmas and Easter Day, along with significant feast days, while white is worn for the season of Easter.
"The red can signify two things: during Pentecost, it's the coming of the Holy Spirit — red is about fire and the Spirit," says the Reverend.
"The other time we wear red is if it's a martyr's day … [red] being the colour of blood and sacrifice for martyrs who gave their life for Christ."
The green copes are worn for the remainder of the year, signalling growth and rejuvenation.
The royal touch
But it's not just the colour of the copes that speaks volumes — it's the magnificence of the design.
"The cope is a symbol of authority," says Reverend Dries.
"I mean, obviously kings and queens would wear something like that to say they have an important office."
The reference to royalty isn't completely without merit. According to Reverend Dries, one of the copes at Christ Church features fabric from a decoration at the coronation of the Queen's father in Westminster Abbey.
"After the coronation, [the fabric] was taken down, chopped up and sent all over the world," he says.Photo: Known as the 'royal cope', this vestment is said to feature fabric from the coronation of the Queen's father. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
"This is supposedly the fabric from that, so it's heading up towards 100-years-old."
According to Reverend Dries, some of the copes cost thousands of dollars.
One set in particular comes from Watts & Co. — "an old ecclesiastical haberdashery store just near Westminster Abbey" — while another channels 1970s block-colouring.
While it might be a large collection, Reverend Dries says the church hasn't paid for any vestments.
"Parishioners usually donate them in memory of someone or in thanksgiving, so we've been blessed that people are very generous," he says.
"[The parishioners] come to this church from the Blue Mountains and Canberra and Newcastle, so we have hundreds of people every Sunday.
"They come from a huge area, but they are drawn to the music and the liturgy and the tradition that we have here."
With singers, models and taste-makers shedding light on religious fashion courtesy of the Met Gala, it's possible these ecclesiastical traditions will be appreciated by an even wider audience.
Topics: fashion, design, religion-and-beliefs, catholic, sydney-2000