The following article 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, originally appeared in Freemason magazine, Autumn 2011, vol. 43, no. 1 (published by the United Grand Lodge of NSW and the ACT).
The financial centre of London is a mystery to me. I don’t think I have ever strolled through the district or set foot in its august institutions, but I used to see from the top of the bus the serious-looking men with their black jackets and striped trousers, and I seem to recall top hats or at least bowlers.
Did it worry anyone to wear the garb in the street? Any embarrassment would have been inconceivable. There were horses for courses and clothing for the occasion.
Freemasonry also has its modes of attire, though rarely paraded in public and more generally kept for lodge meetings, to such an extent that one of the lodge officers has the official duty “to see the brethren properly clothed”. Naturally, the operative mason of long ago would have needed protective clothing with pockets or other receptacles for their working tools. One only hopes they did not look as scruffy as certain artisans of a later generation and that they had a pride in their appearance as well as their work.
Speculative Freemasonry has retained some of the sartorial styles of the operative period but added a dignity and style that become possible when a person merely philosophised about being a builder without getting his hands dirty. Certain levels of masonic clothing and regalia are now quite magnificent but they also tend to be so heavy that the wearer is weighed down, hopefully with the gravity of his responsibility and not just his uniform.
The Craft has four main items of clothing – apron, collar, gloves and gauntlets. In earlier days there was also the hat, but that has been discarded. Few masons would think of wearing a hat in lodge any more than members wear a hat in State or Federal Parliament.
Every mason, whatever his rank, wears an apron. It is the first gift he receives from the Craft and is the symbol and evidence of his membership. Deriving from the French “napperon”, a cloth, it would have been 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 the badge of one’s trade being provided by the employer.
The masonic apron is made of strong leather; cloth would be little protection when handling stone. These days the apron is white lambskin as a badge of innocence – honest, reliable craftsmanship. The medieval apron was full-length and not necessarily white which would soon become soiled. Today’s apron, being merely symbolic, is both white and shorter. It is said to be both “a badge of innocence and a bond of friendship”, ie. A mark of fellowship. The original apron was tied around the body by means of string and a relic of this practice is the hanging tassels. As a mason rises in the Craft, the more decorative is his apron.
Originally utilitarian with the purpose of suspending certain working tools, today’s collar is like a ribbon to hang “jewels”, the symbols of office and dignity identifying one’s distinctive function such as the Junior Warden (the plumb rule) or Senior Warden (the level). The blue of the collar represents “the blue vault of heaven”, a mark of constancy, scope and consistent virtue.
All Freemasons must wear smart clothes to indicate there is no distinction between the external rank of a mason or his social status. Local custom dictates how formal one’s clothing must be: in hot climates or at daytime meetings, the rules are often relaxed. When in formal wear, Freemasons frequently wear military or national medals and decorations.
These were originally part of the gloves and were a further means of protecting oneself from injury or soiling. Separating gloves and gauntlets became an additional indication of the special dignity of masonic office.
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.)
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.