When business consultants prepare for presentations they make to clients, they dress in professional clothing that assures clients that their suggestions can be trusted. Police officers wear uniforms that communicate their role as law enforcers. Cooks wear aprons to aid cleanliness; teens sometimes wear the clothes of their peers to be trendy and feel as though they fit in; judges wear robes to show their authority. What we wear makes a statement.
When choirs sing for worship, they function as the representative voice of the baptized assembly. A choir in the Christian liturgy is part of that assembly, but also has a unique function within the assembly. A choir is made up of diverse people: men and women, young and old, various races, differing heights and shapes, and rich and poor. These truths will affect what a choir wears for worship.
Because a choir in worship is the representative voice of the baptized, it follows naturally that the choir will wear the garment of the baptized community. We know from the very earliest times of Christian worship that the newly baptized were clothed in a white tunic-like garment called an "alb." (Alb means white.) This flowing, floor-length, ample-sleeved garment in white fabric represented the new life that the baptized was given in the sacrament. While the alb might be seen to be "clergy clothes" or the robe a pastor wears, the alb is the garment of baptism, suitable for all the baptized. When pastors wear these garments, they wear them on behalf of the whole gathered assembly. Also, in many churches, these garments are often worn by those who serve as lectors, ministers of communion, intercessors (those who lead prayer), acolytes, and other assisting ministers.
Musicians, including choirs of all ages, instrumentalists, and their leaders, are part of this body of assisting ministers. Musicians in the liturgy function as proclaimers of the Word and use their gifts to enable the community to receive and rejoice in the means of God’s grace. To wear white baptismal vestments (another perhaps more useful word for liturgical garments as opposed to "robes") shows the choir to be part of the baptized assembly, entrusted with the task of sharing their gifts and talents to serve the assembly gathered in the light of the Gospel.
Albs also help unify a choir visually. Well-chosen vestments that are appropriately sized for the choir and other musicians can minimize the distinctive attributes of each person and accentuate the common work of the group. Albs will help mask the differences between men and women, young and old, and the different sizes of each person. (The use of a cincture (the rope around the waist) is a much later development in the history of vestments, and heightens the difference between larger people and smaller people. Try letting the albs drape freely.) Of great importance, albs will cover the disparity between those with wealth and those without, a sign that is so often shown by our individual wardrobes. We are one before God; albs help to show that baptismal unity.
Some choirs wear cassocks and cottas. A cassock is an ankle length black garment that was the basic garment of people in the Middle Ages. A cotta is a white garment with sleeves that does not go to the tops of the feet but rather just below the waist. The cotta is really a miniature alb. The custom of wearing cassock and cotta came from the Middle Age practice of wearing the alb over the basic garment of the time, the cassock. Over the years, the cotta became lighter in weight and shorter. While the wearing of a cassock and cotta has a history in the church, the alb has a clearer baptismal origin and a longer history.
Some choirs wear academic gowns. While academic robes are often colorful, they separate the choir from the assembly and its ministers in an unhelpful way. Academic robes also communicate societal status and rank, which are of no importance in the Christian assembly. The use of hats or collars on vestments that are used especially to distinguish the women from the men should be avoided.
Some choirs wear stoles around their necks. Stoles are the yoke of discipleship that the Church has traditionally placed on the necks of ordained leadership as a sign of their servant role and particular calling to lead in the liturgies of the Church. Some might perceive musicians in the assembly wearing such stoles to be assuming a role that is not theirs. Also, pectoral crosses worn around the neck are traditionally ornamented dress of the bishops of the Church. Care should be taken to see that choirs wear vestments and accessories that communicate the truth of their calling.
Vestments for children’s choirs should not differ from the albs of the adult musicians, except in size. Vesting children in garments that are made to accentuate their age or size or, worse, their cuteness, are to be avoided. Common vestments for all the musicians will help the youngest choir members to see that their role in the liturgy is as important as the adult participants.
Many church supply companies offer choir albs in their catalogues. Below are a list of websites and sources of vestment companies.
In any decisions regarding what the choir is given to wear, consider that the choir communicates its role and function in worship by its common garment. And in all cases, wear the vestments and the duty and delight that accompany their donning, receiving with joy and gladness the gift of music that God has given you, your choir, your assembly, and all of God’s children.