In their simplest form, choir robes and choral garments have been in existence since antiquity. The notion of a uniformed collective of singers extends almost as far back as civilization itself to the Ancient Greeks, as portrayed on classic ceramics and earthenware. The format of figures wearing similar, loosely fitting tunics, intermingled with musicians is instantly recognizable.
However, the often armless tunics that are slung over one shoulder are somewhat removed from the modern-looking choir robe that is common in places of chorus and worship today. Practicality has of course played a part; wearing a sleeveless tunic in the depths of a Midwestern winter is a very different proposition to wearing one in the balmy climate of the Mediterranean. What caused this development and how has it changed over the years?
With the growth of Judeo-Christian religion and culture, religious robes and attire were restricted to the clergy to distinguish clerics from worshippers and the population in general. In pre-Christian Jewish law, it was mandatory for high priests to wear clerical attire and vestments. However, in its infancy, Christianity discouraged ordained priests from wearing robes. This in part can be attributed to the clandestine nature of early Christianity. For the first few centuries, Christianity remained an underground religion with its followers subject to persecution from Jewish and Roman religious authorities. In this climate, any attention grabbing attire could have had disastrous consequences for the wearer.
The growth and expansion of Christianity from the early to the late Middle Ages led to the development of a recognizable form of Christian choir. From solemn Gregorian chanting to boys choirs, some forms of which still exist today, the church choir grew into a mainstay of European culture. Choir robe styles at this time reflected clerical garments of the era: a simple white, loose-fitting, blouse-like shirt known as a surplice, worn over a plain black, long-sleeved tunic called a cassock. Thus, a formal choir uniform was born, although in the same style as clerical wear of the time.
During the Renaissance and Romantic periods, with the blossoming of high culture across Europe, secular choirs came into prominence. For the first time people came together in choruses for the love of singing and recreation, not just pious worship. With the strides made in all art forms during these periods, both the substance and stylings of choirs took a leap forward, reflected in the hymns that are still popular to this day, and the beautiful choir garments that are depicted in Renaissance art. It was during this era that choir robes took the form recognizable today: a graduation-style gown called the Geneva Robe based on doctoral gowns. From this point, choir gowns developed their own style, separate from the other forms of gowns worn by the clergy, the judiciary, and academia.
It is from this basis that modern choral wear blossomed and developed. Since the Romance period, the popularity of religious and secular choirs grew dramatically, along with the growth of art and choral music, expanding beyond devout worship. This expansion sparked new styles of choir music, as well as choral wear. Gospel music is perhaps a prime example of the expansion of choral music and stylings with a previously unseen unique flair. It is this growth combined with modern consumerism that brought about the development of robes. From the humble Geneva Robe choir robes and accessories have been marketed in increasingly varied fabrics, styles and colors, all the while retaining the academic style developed in the Renaissance. Will the choir robe cling to the academic style of gown in years to come? The future of choral wear remains to be seen.