Which colors do I need?
Which colors of vestments should I have?
I am asked this question on virtually every order, so I would like to give a longer response here on the website because it is a topic that I want you to be informed about as you purchase vestments. I am happy to discuss your particular needs via email or phone, but here are the basics:
First, it is helpful to know that in historical Orthodox Christian liturgical rubrics, there are only two color categories, that of "bright" and "dark." That can seem rather confusing to many of us who have been told that there are colors for each season, but the idea of there being one specific, assigned color for each liturgical season is foreign to historical Orthodox color rubrics. This idea of specific colors has become solidified in current American usage due to the fact that for many decades, the only place to purchase liturgical fabrics in the US was from Western Christian suppliers and the Western communions have a tradition of monochromatic (one color) brocades. For example, if you were a priest in the US in the 1970s, the companies that sold vestment fabrics here only sold fabrics like gold on gold, solid red, solid green, etc., so that was all most tailors had to choose from (it's helpful to remember that importing liturgical items from Orthodox lands used to be much harder than it is today).
However, in Orthodox tradition, we have always tended towards a much greater usage of polychromatic (two or more color) brocades, such as gold/gold/red (that's gold warp with gold weft and a red outline color), blue/gold, purple/gold, white/gold/green, etc. This is because of the inherent flexibility of our bright/dark rubrics-these are broad categories and many different color combinations fit easily into each category.
An aside: Having said that, there are local color traditions that have sprung up in various locales, so it is quite "traditional" to have a priest in California wear gold vestments for Palm Sunday where a priest in New Jersey might wear green. And, the tradition of wearing blue for the Theotokos is a long-standing one, possibly dating back as early as the 7th century.
So, what is a bright or a dark set? Here is the excerpt from my book on which colors are considered bright:
"…specific colors within the "bright" category may include, but are not limited to: pure white; white with gold accents; gold with white accents; gold on gold; white with gold and red accents; gold with red accents; ivory with gold and burgundy embroidery; ivory with blue, green, and gold embroidery; white with gold and silver embroidery; multi-colored brocades with gold, silver, blue, green, coral, gold, and burgundy; white with silver accents; ivory or white with gold, green, and burgundy embroidery; blue with silver; blue with gold; white with blue; green with silver or gold; and white with green." (excerpt from Appendix B-Liturgical Color Rubrics, "The Garments of Salvation: Orthodox Christian Liturgical Vesture" SVS Press 2013)
As for dark, those colors can include dark red, dark red with gold, burgundy, burgundy with gold, black, black with silver, black with burgundy and gold, purple with black, purple with gold, solid black, and solid purple.
Secondly, when considering how to purchase vestments, one needs to be aware that in addition to our rather confusing bright/dark rubrics (I know, you just thought you were getting the hang of it!), we also have the idea of "hierarchy of beauty" within our vestment tradition. Simply put, some vestments are fancier than others! That means that some vestments are considered good for "every Sunday" or "daily" use and others are considered appropriate for "festal" use. A gold/gold/red standard brocade (if you look at the Priest's Vestments, Brocade page, this would be something like Corinth gold/gold/red or Antioch white/gold) is excellent for "every Sunday" use; but something like "Jerusalem white/gold real metal" or "Cherson multi-colored real metal brocade" would be appropriate for festal use-these are real metal brocades and definitely more "dressy" than a standard brocade. Multi-colored brocades, in particular, are seen as more "festal" since they have a very exuberant, joyous quality-these brocades visually sing! Ideally, every priest should have a set of vestments that he uses only for special feasts-Nativity, Pascha, his nameday, the parish patronal feast, etc.
An aside: this idea of vestment hierarchy eclipses that of color, so, for example, if it's Pascha and your only set of white vestments is old and worn, but you've got a brand-new sparkly set of blue vestments, you could wear those for Pascha-it's the Feast of Feasts, so you wear your best!
Thirdly, this wonderfully flexible approach to color within the Church is very practical: a new ordinand need only have two sets of vestments to serve the entire liturgical year. He can then add sets as he chooses, but there is no "requirement" that he have "every liturgical color" because we only have two basic liturgical "colors" within Orthodox tradition. Given that, I recommend that new ordinands purchase vestments in this order:
1. Bright set (see list above)
2. Dark set (see list above)
3. Travel/lightweight set (especially if your area has hot summer weather; this set is also good for baptisms, weddings, and travel)
4. Festal set
5. Other colors at your discretion/liking (blues, green, reds, etc.)
An aside: here in the US, we have come to use solely purple during Great Lent (this is not done in Orthodox lands-black, burgundy, or purple are all considered suitable for Lenten usage and I have even seen purple used outside of Great Lent in Greece) and I recommend that new ordinands consider purchasing burgundy as their dark set since it can be used much more frequently throughout the year (see the color charts on the Info tab), thereby rotating all the vestment sets and making them last longer.
Lastly, the most important thing to remember about Orthodox Christian color usage is that it is a flexible approach to color based upon ancient color classifications, rather than the dogmatic approach to color that has been embraced in the modern age*. This is why you can see concelebrants in all sorts of colors of vestments in a single Divine Liturgy; in Orthodox tradition, this is as it should be!
*Please note: if you would like to read more about the topic of color and color usage within the Orthodox Church, please see Chapter 5: A Meadow in Full Bloom in my book.