Once I saw a cape made of hummingbird skins. I couldn’t touch it or turn it over because it was in a glass case but it had to have taken skill, patience and inspiration. Beautiful as hummingbirds are, they are only the size of teaspoon scoops. Might not peacocks or even China rooster pheasantss have been more practical?
Before I became a minister, I dreamt I was in Boston walking down Beacon street in a black velvet robe with stars somehow attached. It was a Harry Potter sort of image, mixing ministerial preaching robes with wizard’s robes. In the dream the black velvet went in and out of being night sky. I told this to my mentor-minister, thinking he would be pleased but he looked grave and said, “Be very careful.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant. That I was getting too full of myself? That I was mixing magic with a scholar’s entitlement, the wizard’s robe with the academic gown? That it was too much about the glamour of it all?
His own Geneva gown was from Harvard, where the academic gowns are red. It had black chevrons on the sleeves to indicate a doctoral degree. Every intern minister craved to wear that robe instead of the standard black. When I did my own internship I often wore my supervisor’s ancient black silk robe, half-rotted, and much heavier than one would guess because the inside of a good one is built like the inside of a bespoke suit: that is, it is meant to make the man inside look good with padding and lining and strategic little tucks. Beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there is also a vocabulary of collars, bands, ruffs, stocks, dickies and so on that evolved from ordinary men’s shirts with various collars, starched to stand up, turned down flat, with points or not, or maybe just the band or maybe a plastic collar with a fastening in the back, maybe strings with tassels or little crocheted balls.
Most of this is related to the tensions and symbolisms between Catholic and Protestant with the Anglican tradition ambiguous about whether they should lean more to Catholic roots or more to Protestant modernity. The reversed collar might have a little black tab like the gap in the front of a cassock. Certain social activist ministers in the American Sixties put reverse collars on blue chambray workshirts to show their allegiance. An early female minister trying to get access to a parishioner in ICU was turned away by sexist nurses until she went home, found a blouse with a high collar, picked the embroidery out of it, and wore it back to the hospital where the symbolism of it overcame gender and got her in. Nowadays jolly Protestant ministers and chaplains can find clerical shirts with the familiar collar attached to nice wash-and-wear shirts in bright colors.
When I was actually ready to preach, the question of exactly what robe I would wear seemed crucial. I had already bought a traditional stole green with wheat (for bread) on one side and grapes (for wine) on the other. But I was unconscious of the symbolism (I got the communion part -- I missed the green which refers to the season of the year). It did get through to me that by theologically stepping away from Christianity, I was also leaving their vestments. But I had no access to hundreds of hummingbirds and would have been attacked by the Audubon Society if I had used them.
At some point I needed a banner for the Big Sky Unitarian Universalist Ministry, which was my first post. Delving into my rag bag, I found blue taffeta for sky (I like the way the moire pattern shimmered) and tan corduroy for a prairie horizon. The point of the banner was to be a kind of flag to signify that we were meeting in this place. Bouncing off that, I bought nine yards more of blue taffeta and made my robe out of it. (I was not conscious that the Yale academic gown is pale blue.) A high collar band, puffed sleeves ending in a cuff and a band going across the bodice and over the sleeves to keep it from being too plain. That’s what you see on my backyard clothesline above, airing out on a summer afternoon, dancing its own life. No lining. No shoulder pads. No pockets (maybe a mistake). Much cooler than the traditional robes.
Many Unitarian Universalist ministers go ethnic, wearing a white linen alb with roots so old and various that they can’t be clearly identified, and over that a stole or other decorative strip with symbols on it. For a while it was popular for women in congregations to applique elaborate stoles for their ministers at ceremonial high points, like retirement or being called. My ethnic element, which I don’t generally wear with the robe, is a dark blue dance shawl with deep silk fringe. Where the moths nibbled it, I added embroidered iron-on butterflies. Sometimes I’ve used it for a fancy wrap on summer dress-up evenings and on the singular occasions when I’ve participated in Pow-wows, I’ve worn it.
At some point I felt my blue gown wasn’t elaborate or expressive enough, so I added my own version of a liturgical stole. It’s black velvet with a beaded “earth” on one side and a beaded “moon” on the other, sprinkled with little crystal button “stars.” My cosmological stole I feel as though it needs something -- maybe more accuracy in the beading -- but children really like it and will stand in front of me counting the stars.
To some this is “play” and dumps out centuries of tradition. To others it is “heresy” and mocks the clothing it imitates. To some it’s just corny and to others it’s charming. At least no birds were harmed. And, like anything that is different but not TOOO much, it raises interesting questions. What would "too much" be like? Well, consider the drag queen priests in "Jesus Christ Superstar."