Meeting the makers


In the heart of The Eternal City, far from the catwalks of Milan and Paris, there is a world of haute ecclesiastical dress and sartorial perfection, where black is always the new black

Father William Whitcombe, London 2012

A text message from a friend arrives early one morning: “Sitting on the runway. Heading to Rome for a few days. Need anything?”

I can’t text back fast enough. You see, when one clergyman speaks to another using the words “Rome” and “need anything” in the same sentence, it’s hallowed code for “I am going to spend a small fortune at Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, the Vatican tailors, and if you’re really lucky there might just be enough room in my suitcase for a pair of cardinal red socks or a dress shirt.”

Blink and you could almost miss Gammarelli, all coy and anonymous in the back streets of Rome, hidden behind an unremarkable news kiosk. In some ways, they don’t really want you to find them. This isn’t a stop on the tourist trail. Browsing isn’t encouraged here. This is serious, grown up, know-what-you-want-and-don’t-waste-our-time territory. Hidden in the drawers, the cupboards and in boxes at the top of ladders is a treasure trove of ecclesiastical dressing-up opportunities. That’s front of house. In the back is where the bespoke tailoring goes on. The Gammarelli family of tailors have been cutting cloth for the Vatican since 1798. During the election of the current Pope, it was Gammarelli who made three of the distinctive white cassocks in differing sizes, to ensure a near enough fit for one of the odds-on favourites to be Pope.

I remember my first visit to Gammarelli. It was a sweltering morning in August and I couldn’t help but feel I was being rather naughty. I was, after all, a young Church of England curate from North London. What business had I, deep in the panting heart of Rome, visiting the papal tailor? Surely they would smell a member of the rebellious and long-lost English mission who lists amongst her 39 articles of religion the statement “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England”? I hoped not. I wanted a coat.

Knowing what you want, and not looking too excited about it, is key to a successful shopping trip at Gammarelli. I explained, in my broken Italian, that I had come to be measured for a Grecha – a generously-cut ankle-length coat in a black medium-weight wool, double breasted, with two rows of covered buttons, and black velvet around the collar. Think Rick Owens with a dog collar, and you’re nearly there – just the thing for a cold London winter.

The world of haute ecclesiastical dress is a mystery to most. After all, it’s easy to gently mock the C of E country vicar in his open-toed sandals and socks and ill-fitting everything else. Or there’s the comforting image of the Vicar of Dibley, all flowery blouses and a drawer full of Dairy Milk and goodwill. Surely vicars and priests don’t concern themselves with such worldly matters as the outward appearance…do they?

When I was at college, the Grand Dame of clerical tailors was Miss Raby. She was something of a legend, a name whispered in the corridors of theological college from the moment you arrived.

Of course we do. Clergy are not immune to the reality that first impressions count. And much of what we do, in our liturgies for example, involves outward and visible signs and gestures that communicate an inward spiritual reality. I remember sitting with some friends in Oxford in our final year of training for ordination. We all agreed that if we were going to wear this strange garb for much of the rest of our lives, then we were going to do it properly. And that might well mean skipping a couple of meals for a properly tailored cassock or a beautifully made stole. We had a strong sense of our place in the history of this long tradition of ecclesiastical design and tailoring, and were determined to support the designers, who often struggled away as a one-band show, battling to survive against the popularity of mass production.

When I was at college, the Grand Dame of clerical tailors was Miss Raby. She was something of a legend, a name whispered in the corridors of theological college from the moment you arrived. For decades, Miss Raby has been making clerical cassocks – the long black coat-like garment worn by clergy – in her studio on the outskirts of Birmingham. To this day, there is no website, and a Google search will bring up only one or two obscure references to this phantom-like creator of some of the most exquisitely made clerical dress. She works to a strict pattern, and won’t deviate from it. The cut is unforgivingly slim: there’s no room for the sin of gluttony here. Clergy should, according to her pattern-cutting book, be upright, slight, and ready for action. It’s comforting to know that my measurements are still marked in pencil in one of her many notebooks, and that my pattern hangs somewhere in the dark recesses of her studio.

Others in this rather rarefied field have spread their wings a little and ventured into the wider world. I had my ordination stole made by the ecclesiastical outfitter and church furnisher Watts & Co. At the time they occupied a small corner behind Westminster Abbey, but they now have a well-established fabric showroom in Chelsea Harbour, and you are as likely to find their silk damasks in a smart Belgravia drawing room as on the back of a priest’s chasuble, the poncho-like garment worn in different colours, depending on the church’s season.

Perhaps few “uniforms” provoke such strong reactions from people. And nothing quite prepares the wearer for their first time in this state of dress. I was surprised the first time I wore clerical dress in the streets of London – surprised by just how uncomfortable it made me feel, and by just how long it took to adjust to going from anonymous to instantly recognisable. Construction workers would hiss from building sites, others would tell the most extraordinary and intimate life stories at the bus stop. Recently, a young woman asked if she could walk with me from the Underground to her street, because she felt she would be safe. The extraordinary amount of trust that many place in this uniform is daunting, to say the least.

I feel huge affection for an old indigo chore jacket, for example, that I picked up in a Depot-Vent in the Pyrenees just under a decade ago. I fell in love with its grittiness and elegant shabbiness.

I have always appreciated clothes that have a bit of previous: clothes that can tell a tale. I was fortunate enough to meet the eccentric and brilliant Bunny Roger, many years ago. He dressed every day as an Edwardian dandy, and was kind enough to point out to an awkward and shy teenager the importance of not being afraid to embrace a bright tweed, or to try on something once owned by someone else. I’ve always stuck to his advice. I feel huge affection for an old indigo chore jacket, for example, that I picked up in a Depot-Vent in the Pyrenees just under a decade ago. I fell in love with its grittiness and elegant shabbiness. Every time I put it on, I feel as if each thread could tell a story. That’s the magic of clothes for me. The Norfolk-based clothing label Old Town has very cleverly captured something of that magic. Made to order, their jackets and trousers faithfully follow the patterns of decades long past. Wrap yourself in one of their jackets and you feel like you’re being given a great big nostalgic hug: “It’s lovely to see you again. It’s been far too long.”

Back to a working day, and back to the deepest black of clerical dress. It can feel like a far cry from the rest of my wardrobe. This style will always place me in challenging situations, pushing me beyond my comfort zone. But whenever I’m tempted to toss aside the collar and opt for anonymity for the sake of an easier life, I’m reminded of a wonderful story in the late Alec Guinness’s biography Blessings in Disguise. He tells of the time he played the role of Father Brown, in a film based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton. The film was being shot in a remote French village, and one evening Guinness, still in costume, was on his way back to his lodgings when a little boy, mistaking him for the real thing, grabbed his hand and trustingly accompanied the “priest”, chatting away about this and that. The incident affected Guinness, and helped him to shake off his long-taught and long-absorbed prejudices against the church and to rediscover his faith. Our clothing choices have a powerful part to play in our journey in life. Most significantly, they can influence the journeys of others, too.

Gammarelli, Via di Santa Chiara, 34  00186 Rome, Italy
066 8801314;

William Whitcombe is Chaplain of the University of Arts, London