A Man in Uniform

There was a time when almost every job had its uniform. Of course we can think of soldiers, police- and firemen, postal workers…but can you remember fast food servers, or department store girls in uniform, or the girl at the Fotomat kiosk in the parking lot of the grocery store where the box boys, too, were in uniform? Even the soda-jerk in the drugstore wore a uniform. There remain some professions where people wear uniforms, but those uniforms have lost some of their meaning. Nurses no longer wear their white shoes and starched hats. They look like doctors in much the same scrubs but without the white lab coat.

A conversation I’d been having on another blog had me thinking about uniforms: just what they do and what it means when they are abandoned. Admittedly, I’m a traditionalist and a bit of a liturgy geek and the conversation that got me going on uniforms was on the site Brothers of John the Steadfast. The post was: Great Stuff — Are Lutherans Like Catholics? Yes, and No. Read this interview. The person with whom I was corresponding wrote, “I like the historic vestments, although I personally ‘draw the line’ at chasubles as an unnecessary revival.”

The Lutheran approach to liturgical vestments can be rather low, although it needn’t be, and I think that some of the things that Lutherans of the more conservative synods have rejected–for reasons, I suspect, of looking too Roman–miss the point of vestments.

Priestly vestments are a uniform. They are the clothing for the job at hand. The traditional vestments go back to Roman times. Some things, like the alb, were simply the clothing of the day, while other things, lke the stole, had special significance. The origins of the stole are shrouded in a bit of secrecy. One theory claims it to be some sort of napkin, like the maniple; another suggests that it is a cultural remnant of a toga worn by a magistrate. This latter idea is supported by the fact that a deacon in both the Eastern and western church wear the stole in the same way, as if it were a toga. However, the stole signifies the office of the person: a bishop wears the stole like a scarf hanging down on each side; the priest wears it crossed over his chest; and the deacon like a sash or toga across his body

I don’t want to go into every article of priestly clothing, but as the chasuble was mentioned above, it should be pointed out that this garment, too, has a specific time and place to be worn. The chasuble is worn by the celebrant of the mass, weather that is the Bishop or a priest, and only one person wears the chasuble. Wearing a chasuble shows that you are the celebrant, you are the person confecting the Eucharist, and it is worn over the stole. The name chasuble comes from the Latin for “little house” and was a large circular cloak worn when traveling until it took its liturgical place at the altar of the Mass.

A consequence of my liturgical geekery is that I notice when watching a movie, or television program when a costume designer or dresser hasn’t done his homework, or when an actor is simply vested wrongly.

One day I was on my lunch break from the New Museum, and I came across a large group of actors outside Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (now Saint Patrick’s Basilica). They were filming a scene from “Blue Bloods.” There were four actors dressed like priests that I automatically spotted as actors, not priests. How? Take a look at this:

I know, the picture’s hard to see, but it was hard to find any picture from this program, let alone one of this particular scene in this particular episode. Nonetheless, there’s one of the priests in the background: stole over chasuble.

I approached the actors on their break and told them that they should let the dresser know that the stole goes under the chasuble. The scene had been started, nothing would be changed for continuity’s sake, but still if you’re a dresser or designer, you may want to go to one traditional mass before you make this:

The poor denominational or liturgical choices are not limited to costumes though. TV writers have evangelicals using Latin exorcisms from the Roman tradition; holy water being made by dipping a rosary in a jug; or any other blending of traditions or dogmas when some oh-so-heavy research on Wikipedia would tell them that they’ve got the details all wrong. And the Devil is in the details. It’s unfortunate that these “mistakes” are not limited to pop culture. Whenever I’m looking for a good laugh/cry I look to Bad Vestments.

There is one place that I found gets it right though. The “99 Problems” episode from Season 6 of “Supernatural” has the best depiction of Lutherans on television I’ve ever seen:

Well, perhaps not.


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