Today the dalmatic is not the sort of garment you expect to see outside of a church service, but when it first appeared in third-century Rome from Dalmatia across the Adriatic Sea (the same place credited with a breed of dog made famous when 101 of them barked across movie screens), the garment made quite a fashion statement and senators adopted it as a sign of their rank. A calf-length tunic, wide at the sleeves, worn without a belt, it caused some scandal before bishops and deacons started wearing it as well. By the 11th century, the church designated the dalmatic as a vestment proper to them.
Worn over the alb, the dalmatic looks a lot like a chasuble, the outer vestment worn by the priest when he celebrates the Eucharist. It adopts the same color and often the same material as the chasuble. Many early examples sported two stripes from front to back across the shoulders. But the big difference in these vestments is sleeves. A chasuble is completely open from hands to floor, but a dalmatic has sleeves. Many people don't notice the difference. For this reason, many deacons opt to wear the stole without the dalmatic because the deacon's stole, cutting across the body at an angle and dropping in a dogleg near the knee, is more visibly distinct.
Although the dalmatic is generally identified with deacons, it remains a vestment which may be worn by bishops as well. When a bishop vests for a solemn service, he may wear the dalmatic under the chasuble and in fact was required to do so for almost the past thousand years. Today he may omit the dalmatic for a good reason, and many bishops have dispensed with it as unnecessary.
During the ordination ceremony, the deacon formally receives his dalmatic, and it is placed on him by an assisting deacon or priest. By this investiture, the garment becomes a symbol of his role within the community.
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Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate
in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.