Surplice (or Cotta) Designs: Some Thoughts

Surplice design is very often a point of commentary when liturgical photos are posted, second only to the vestments themselves. While this might be considered a 'minor detail' the fact that they are commented upon at all is indicative of their visibility in the liturgical rites and, with it, their influence on the perception of and, to some extent, even the character of those same rites. In that regard then, it is important that they be taken into consideration both in terms of the quality of their design and also their maintenance (cleaning, ironing and so forth). I believe the need for maintenance speaks for itself but as for design, I thought it might be useful to show some examples of different sorts of surplice, or cotta, that are noble and well suited to their liturgical purpose.

First a word about the differentiation between a "surplice" and a "cotta." Some would suggest that a surplice is the longer, plainer garment, reaching to the knee (or further below) while the cotta is that which reaches to the waist or just below it.  This distinction is tenuous, at least historically. Unlike another similar bit of vesture that is clearly distinct, the rochet, the cotta and surplice function in the same capacity and, as such, for the purpose of this article we will treat them as one and the same.

Things to Avoid

Before we speak about that which comes off well in surplice design, I would like to first comment on the types of designs that I do not think work as well. Here we must distinguish between two forms: those which utilize lace and those which do not. Let's begin with those that do utilize lace.

Lace Surplice/Cotta

First, there are those surplices where the lace component is too great in proportion to the whole in my estimation. For example, the lace might be one half (or more) of the overall length of the surplice -- or even the entire surplice. A little bit of (good) lace can go a long way, but too much tends to lose its refinement and comes off poorly. One might consider lace the "condiment" of a well designed surplice/cotta. Treat it accordingly.

Second, there many different types of lace and some of them seem far too 'genteel' for use on a surplice. (For example. Chantilly, Point d'Esprit, Lyons, Alencon, etc.)  Others come off as too raw and unfinished in appearance (such as Cotton lace). The latter should be avoided entirely and the former avoided at least for surplices; something with a bit more distinctiveness and boldness, such as Battenberg lace, would be far better utilized instead.

Third, the predominant shapes that constitute the lace pattern also matters. Lace which is overly geometric in nature (utilizing triangular and rectangular shapes in its overall pattern) tend to come off rather poorly, looking amateurish and unpolished. By the same token, overtly realistic floral forms are often not much better. The most successful designs seem to employ forms such as vine work or leafy patterns.

Finally, in terms of colour I would note that some lace I have seen used is of a more beige or gold colour than white; this comes off rather poorly. Lace should integrate seamlessly and organically with the white linen of the surplice, rather than appearing as something forcibly grafted onto it.

Non-Lace Surplice/Cotta

Where no lace used, the key lies in the length, the cut and also the folds of the pleats to create the ornamental aspect. Some of these can be to too long, reaching almost to the floor with sleeves that nearly do the same. These can be difficult to pull off successfully. Others are made too short, coming down to just below the waist line.  Neither work very well in this instance. What is needed is something that sits in between these two extremes, ranging in length from just below the knee to the upper thigh.

Some non-lace surplices include red embroidered crosses in an orphrey like pattern as a form of ornamentation. My recommendation would be to avoid these entirely as well.

Examples of Good Surplice/Cotta

Lace Examples

To my mind, one of the most refined uses of lace for a surplice is where it amounts to three to five inches attached to the hem of the surplice. As already noted above, the best type of lace is something like Battenberg lace. Here is an example of these elements coming together:


The lace used here utilizes a repeating pattern at its lower edge that sits in contrast to the cassock. This adds an important ornamental quality that is very visible, being an inch or inch and a half in length. This is a good model to follow.

The type of lace employed here falls into none of the aforementioned pitfalls noted above, being (as I have said) of the Battenberg type, which is bold, distinctive and, in my estimation at least, more masculine in nature.

Here is another excellent example of a cotta that employs more lace in its construction but which utilizes a similar type of lace and comes off very well:


A good rule of thumb is that where less lace is used (as in the first example) the distinct, ornamental trimmings of the bottom edge of the lace is more important than in a case like this. This is for the reason that in the first example it forms, in significant part, the ornament of the surplice -- and without it, you might not even notice there is any ornamental lace. In this second instance (seen just above) the greater amount of lace is what constitutes the ornament and so more a restrained edge is actually desirable.  You can see in both instances how this approach provides a nice balance between simplicity and ornamental beauty.

Non-Lace Examples

As noted above, non-lace examples tend to gain their ornamentation from their length and the effect of their pleating. Here is an example of a surplice coming from a monastic context.



This would be about as long as you would ever want to go with a surplice in my estimation. In point of fact, I would actually even shorten this further by another five inches, like so:


Length is important for the surplice without lace for without that length, they tend to look too sober and plain. The greater length grants a certain grace to them that is further accentuated by the play of the light and shadows on the pleats.  The key here is not to make it so long that could be mistaken for a short alb, nor too short so as to look like a shirt.

Little more needs to be said of this type.

A Final Note

I would like to make one final comment that all of these considerations I've presented here are meant to be specific to the cotta/surplice. They are not meant to apply to the alb, rochet, etc. The reason for this is because those are meant to be worn with other vestments and vesture and that changes some of the considerations for them as compared to the surplice, which is more often than not worn on its own over a cassock and in plain sight.  For that reason, albs and rochets, for instance, are items that can utilize a significant amount more lace and, what's more, can also find a broader array of types of lace that will work well with them.

As for the surplice, I do hope these considerations will be of some use.
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