Once upon a time you knew what to expect when confronted with a clergyman. Nowadays those old expectations and certainties have gone for ever. Alan Edwards ponders the changing dress codes

I am an Ultra-Catholic – no Anglo – I beseech you!
You’ll find no trace of heresy in anything I teach you.
The clergyman across the road has whiskers and a bowler,
But I wear buckles on my shoes and sport a feriola.

So wrote Eric Mascall. The clerical dress and barber’s code which he outlined in Pi in the High was normally a good guide to ‘dedicated followers of fashion’ who wanted to know in which lane of the King’s Highway a clergyman stood.

Moustaches, wide and deep as the collar beneath, were the mark of the hot Prot. Catholics were clean shaven, although there were occasional exceptions. Charles Edward Brooke, founder of St John the Divine, Kennington, was as fully bearded as J.C. Ryle.

Clothes were the best indicator of churchmanship. Sports coat and flannels revealed the Evangelical, grey suit the sombre central churchman, neutral colours betokening moderation, while the Anglo dressed in definite black. For him the single-breasted soutane; for the Middle Stumper the via media of a double-breasted cassock, secured by a belt for added security.

As recently as the 1950s folk who attended Calvinistic Evensongs, of the kind elegised by Betjeman, could remember when cassocks were not in the wardrobe of the true Reformed pastor, the nightshirt length surplice being worn over the suit. In a few outposts, the black gown still remained the badge of Protestant principle.

Footwear, Mascall’s buckled shoes apart, was a less precise pointer. Sandals were a particular problem. It could be that the sandalled foot supported a conventually inclined cleric, or equally, a hearty Evangelical, CSSM chorus book sharing his pullover pocket with Scouting for Boys.

Certainty has now gone. It would be tempting to blame Affirming Catholicism for this as for so much else. It is true that liberal Catholics such as Alec Vidler began the attack upon sartorial certainty by substituting ties for dog-collars. Mervyn Stockwood confirmed the trend and provoked one of Bishop Henry Montgomery Campbell’s best witticisms: meeting Stockwood, for once in purple stock, Campbell remarked, ‘Ah Mervyn, in mufti, I see.’

Nowadays tie wearing has shed its liberal Catholic roots. You can tell you are with Reform clergy if you are dazzled by neckwear that could feature at a Tootal Tie Sales Convention. Presumably the aim is to relate to the ordinary man, but he has added tie-lessness to godlessness, so it could be another Anglican attempt at outreach which has failed.

The arrival of female clergy was bound to shake fashion rules as well as theology but they have been outshone by male colleagues, who now wear stocks competing with Joseph in a display of many colours. However, it would be unwise to assume that Madonna blue proclaims devotion to Walsingham or green belief in the Trinity.

On the positive side, concern over female bishops could be partially allayed, because pectoral crosses are now so common on chests and bosoms, lay as well as clerical, that a few more folk wearing mitres might be no big deal.

Whereas in Mascall’s day the cut of a cassock was a clue to theological stance, nowadays the all-embracing cassock-alb shrouds not only sex differences but all beliefs and none. For some who recall the pictorial impact when Disney’s Seven Dwarfs first marched across the sky-line, the sight of a cassock-alb clad procession provokes the desire to sing ‘Hey, Ho, Hey Ho’ rather than ‘Ave, Ave’.

Nevertheless, should the free province appear, perhaps its clergy should cast off the ambiguous cassock-alb and the ‘liberalism’ that often lurks beneath it, and seek to be clad in a new garb for a new beginning. Zechariah 3: 4 might be a guide to the dress designer.