By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
The general public are used to seeing police or military personnel in uniform. There are sports uniforms, religious robes, academic gowns, and once there were formal black jackets and striped trousers for stockbrokers and members of the financial community. Freemasonry also has its modes of attire, though rarely paraded in public but donned at Lodge meetings to the extent that one of the officers has the duty “to see the brethren properly clothed”.
Operative Masons had protective clothing with pockets or other receptacles for their working tools; we presume they had a pride in their appearance as well as their work. Speculative Freemasonry followed similar sartorial principles even though they were merely philosophising about being builders without getting their hands dirty. Some levels of Masonic attire and regalia are now quite magnificent but tend to be so heavy that the wearer is weighed down, hopefully with his responsibility and not just his uniform.
The craft has four main items of clothing: apron, collar, gloves, and gauntlets. In earlier ages there was also the hat, but this has been discarded. Few Masons would think of wearing a hat in Lodge, nor would members of the House of Commons now wear a hat in Parliament. The notion comes from the Temple priests, who wore mitres. In later Judaism hats were worn during prayer and religious study and by some pietists at all times, to express humility in the presence of God. In Christian worship the hat was removed, except by women. Raising or removing the hat became a sign of respectful greeting.
Every Mason wears an apron, the symbol and evidence of his membership. From the French napperon, a cloth, it was part of the operative Mason’s work clothes, affording him protection as well as pockets for his working tools. Giving a new brother his first apron derives from the medieval custom of one’s badge of trade being provided by the employer (some servants wore livery, so named because it was delivered by the master).
Masonic aprons are made of strong leather; cloth would be little help when handling stone. The modern white lambskin apron is a badge of innocence, honesty and reliability. Medieval aprons were full-length and not necessarily white, which would soon become soiled. Today’s apron, being symbolic, is both white and shorter. It is both “a badge of innocence and a bond of friendship” (a mark of fellowship). The original apron was tied round the body by strings; a relic is the hanging tassels. As a Mason rises in the craft, the more decorative his apron. The higher the Masonic officer, the more ornate his regalia.
Originally utilitarian with the purpose of suspending certain working tools, today’s collar is like a ribbon to hang “jewels”, i.e. symbols of office and dignity identifying one’s distinctive function, e.g. as Junior (the plumb rule) or Senior Warden (the level). Some jewels are worn on the breast. The blue of the collar represents “the blue vault of heaven”, a mark of constancy, scope and consistent virtue.
The operative Mason wore gloves to protect his hands. In speculative Freemasonry the gloves stand for dignity (compare the use of gloves in chivalry) and purity (note that the good person is described in Psalm 24 as having “clean hands and a pure heart”.
These were originally part of the gloves and were a further means of protection from injury or soiling. Gloves and gauntlets became a sign of the dignity of Masonic office.
Operative Masons probably wore head covering. In speculative Freemasonry there were times when the Master wore a hat (often a top hat) in Lodge to symbolise his rule and power. Ancient Romans prayed with covered heads if they were free citizens; thus the hat may have become a symbol of a free Mason, i.e. one who was free to choose his craft. Covering the head may also have suggested a link with the requirement of tiling (or tyling) the Lodge, i.e. covering it to protect the secrets of its proceedings.
All Freemasons must wear smart clothes to indicate that there is no distinction between Masons’ external rank or social status. Local custom dictates how formal one’s clothing must be: in cold climates it is often a dinner suit with black bow tie but in hot climates or at daytime meetings the rules are often relaxed. With formal wear, Freemasons frequently wear military or national medals and decorations.
Masonic dress is significant but is not an end in itself, as indicated by this old poem:
“My glory, honour, all depend
Upon my shirt and cloak and hat:
Alas! An age that honours clothes
Though worn by horse or ass!”
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.