The Origins and History of the Alb
The Alb is a vestment can trace its origin to six ancient garments: the Kolobus, the Tunica, the Colobim, the Tunica Talaris, the Subucula, and finally the Tunica Alba. These garments were common in the Greek or Roman times, some garments being used by both cultures. They are not six manifestations of one garment, but rather six that are distinct enough to make note of the differences. For instance, the Colobim had enough fabric at the shoulder to create a sort of sleeve that hung over the upper arm. The Romans refused to wear tight fitting sleeves—tight sleeves were characteristics of the barbarians—, so when they adopted this garment from the Greeks, they kept the draped sleeves. The Tunica, however, was their preferred garment during the Republic period of Rome. It was sleeveless until circa 270 A.D. when sleeves can be seen appearing on this garment.
1 Norris, Herbert. Roman Tunica Figure 3. 1950. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
“Those who had adopted the new faith, including women, of course wore the costume of the people in general.”2 On a further note, Roulin says that the early Christian ministers did not wear distinctive costumes or garments. They dressed in the clothes of everyday Roman life.3 It was not until circa 313 A.D. that the tunica talaris was decreed to be used by deacons assisting in a worship service. After this, we begin to see various other decrees and regulations about clergy dress. This is in connection with the freedom of Christians to openly worship and practice their faith. Christians became conscientious and began to take care of how their worship services were conducted. An important item of care was, of course, the ecclesiastical dress and church vestments.
2 Herbert Norris, Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development (New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950), 16.
3 Dom E. A. Roulin, Vestments and Vesture: A Manual of Liturgical Art (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950), 4.
Norris says that the term alb was first used circa 400 A.D.4 This became the official dress of the ministering deacon and the everyday dress of the bishops and priests. Since the deacon was to wear the alb while ministering, the Council of Carthage did not want him to wear this garment outside of that function. The bishops and priests, who wore other garments while ministering, could wear the alb as their everyday dress. Yet it was not until 589 A. D., the Council of Narbonne, that alb was finally established as a vestment.
4 Herbert Norris, Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development (New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950), 16.
5 Norris, Herbert. Alb Figure 65. 1950. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
The alb took shape thereafter as a floor length garment, girded, and the sleeves, wrist length, became full and flowing. It did not see a drastic change until the northern European churches were influenced by the Anglo-Saxons. It took roughly three hundred years after the Norman invasion, circa 1300 A.D., for the alb to return to its normal pattern. Since this time, it has hardly changed in form; only small features such as length and decoration have been experimented with on this church vestment.
6 Norris, Herbert. Anglo-Saxon Alb Figure 12. 1950. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
An important truth that we must remember when dealing with Ecclesiastical Vestments and Vestures is that each piece is not used in isolation. All vestments and vestures come together in a relationship with each other; their individual purposes being necessary as a whole for usage in the church and the worship service. Think of it this way, the priest or the pastor, the deacon and deaconess, and others who serve in the church, do not serve as individuals. Rather they are important parts of the whole. The alb, although unique in history and function, serves as a part in the greater whole of the church. And so, we must not lose sight of the essential purpose of a vestment, such as the alb: a vestment is a garment. In the words of Boulin: “The ancient ecclesiastical vesture, from which derive our present liturgical vestments, clothed a man properly and clothed him tastefully, for the reasons which have been give.”7 So for a more thorough reading on the alb, I highly recommend the first chapter in Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development by Herbert Norris.
7 Dom E. A. Roulin, Vestments and Vesture: A Manual of Liturgical Art (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950), 6-7.
~Nihil Sine Deo~
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Norris, Herbert. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
Roulin, Dom E. A. Vestments and Vesture: A Manual of Liturgical Art. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950.