In many careers, professionals sport a garment, patch, or other distinguishing piece of clothing to symbolize their credentials and positions within their field. In the religious spectrum, many professionals wear a liturgical vestment called a clergy stole. Usually in the shape of a flat scarf, a clergy stole is worn mostly by members of Christian denominations, although other religions may also utilize the shawl.
A clergy stole is often made of silk, though it can also be created with cotton or other fabrics. It normally is seven and one half to nine feet (2.28 to 2.74 meters) in length and three to four inches (7.62 to 10.16 centimeters) wide. The ends of the religious stole can be straight or flared out to a wider width, depending on its type.
Clergymen and women wear the stole with the center flat against the back of the neck. This allows the long ends to drape down the wearer's body in a parallel fashion. These ends can either be worn in front of the body, either attached or tied together, or hanging loosely down the sides of the body. Depending on the denomination, there may be other specific variations to how the stole may be worn.
Church stoles are typically decorated to indicate the religion of the wearer. They may also feature special designs, patches or other embellishments to indicate any honors, positions, or levels of rank the wearer may have. Many Christian stoles feature a cross pattern somewhere in their design. Contrasting galloons, or an ornamental trim, and fringe can be used on the stole's ends as well.
Different colors are also used for clergy stoles. Most signify various holidays, such as a white stole being used for Christmas services. However, some denominations also use separate colors to differentiate between ranks or degrees held.
Some denominations also use a sweat guard to protect the clergy stole. These are often made out of lace or white linen. Rather than replacing a stole damaged by a clergy member's sweat, the usually white collar offers a cheaper and easier way to preserve the stole.
Originally, the clergy stole was a larger shawl that covered more of the body. Over time, it became narrower, with richer ornamentation to indicate a mark of respect or dignity for the wearer. Though stories of the origin of the clergy stole vary, most agree that the stole used today has history in the Imperial offices of the Roman Empire, where similar stoles were used to designate rank and honor.