Well, I didn’t see that coming.
Last week, at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced a major change to the Order’s uniform for the Fourth Degree. For decades, our official uniform has been a black tuxedo, a white ruffled shirt, and French cuffs. Note, in addition, the red-white-and-blue social baldric. Here I am, with my son, when we joined the Fourth Degree last year:
A relatively small subset of Fourth Degree Knights also serve in the Color Corps — the most visible portion of the Order. You’ll see us as honor guards at funerals and other important Masses (especially when a bishop is presiding), in parades, and at other events where we want to lend special dignity. On top of the base tuxedo uniform, CC regalia includes white gloves, a cape, chapeau (the feathered cap), and a service baldric (which holds the sword) replaces the social baldric:
When a Fourth Degree honor guard processes into a church ahead of the priest (or bishop), swords drawn and at attention, you know something very special is happening.
Going forward, K of C Supreme says, the cape and chapeau will be retired, and the official uniform will look like this:
From the Knights Gear website:
The official dress uniform (Official Navy Blue Blazer, Official Fourth Degree Gray trousers, Official Fourth Degree Necktie, and Official Fourth Degree Black Beret with Fourth Degree metal badge) is purchased as a set. Individual items are not for sale at this time.
The garments of the official dress are tailored in Italy. The fabric used for both blazers and pants is woven in Italy specifically for the Knights of Columbus from a high quality super 130 wool. The blazer buttons are made in Italy. The KofC blazer patches are completely hand embroidered. The tie is Italian silk, but made in the USA.
Once you receive the uniform, please take it to your tailor for professional finishing. Trousers come with an unfinished hem.
When I first saw this announcement, on social media, I thought it had to be a joke or a parody piece from The Onion. Ironically, in the days since, it has in fact become the basis for biting satire in the Catholic version of The Onion.
Reactions on social media have been overwhelmingly negative, especially when intensity is taken into account. It seems Supreme was as blindsided by this negative reaction as those of us in the Color Corps were by the announcement itself.
Supreme was looking for a way to energize the Fourth Degree — and they’ve done so. Just not in the way they were intending. I’ve never seen my brother Knights rally together so vocally as they have in reaction to this announcement.
The stated intention is to make the Color Corps more attractive to young men, who supposedly find the traditional regalia off-putting. I’ll believe that when I see a scientific, random-sample survey of the membership, rather than the handful of anecdotes offered so far.
But let’s grant for a moment that the new uniform is more popular with young Knights than the traditional regalia is. I would argue that it doesn’t matter. For at least several years, the new uniform would actually significantly depress Color Corps participation. The reason is simple: coming up with $510 (plus the cost of final fitting, and plus a dress shirt), for a super-high-quality Italian wool suit, is beyond the reach of many young people (not to mention the retirees on fixed incomes).
But … but … but … doesn’t the traditional regalia cost just as much? And don’t you also have to buy a tuxedo, in addition to the roughly $500 for a traditional regalia package?
Yes, but here’s an essential point: You can buy any black tuxedo that fits the regulations — including a clearance-rack tux, a used one, or an ex-rental. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Same for the regalia package. Because the traditional regalia has been around for so long, there are a great many used sets floating around. When older Knights retire from active duty in the CC, or pass away, they or their family often donate the regalia to the local Assembly. And if the Assembly doesn’t have a complete set, there are lots of sets — and individual pieces of sets — floating around on eBay. With some patience, it’s possible to piece together one’s own set for significantly less than $500. These sets of second-hand regalia make the Color Corps accessible for new (and younger) Fourth Degree Knights. This opportunity would vanish under the new uniform.
Case in point: I bought my own tuxedo, for about $300, when I joined the Fourth Degree last year. (We rented one for my son.) I was pretty sure I was going to try the CC someday, or at least want a tuxedo for other K of C social events, and $300 seemed reasonable. ($510, for a suit from Italy, would not have.) This past winter, I tried out the CC a few times using second-hand regalia, and I liked it a lot. I doubt I would have even tried the CC if I’d had to front $500 without being sure.
This spring, when I was sure I wanted to continue, I scraped together the $500 and got my own brand-new set of regalia, and returned the “starter set” to the Assembly for another new CC member to try. No, the new regalia was not cheap. But I saw it as a investment I’d be using for the many remaining years of my life. I was going “all in.”
Many other Knights did, too. I’ve seen dozens of angry comments on social media, asking if someone will be refunding the enormous sums that they’ve recently spent getting outfitted with the traditional regalia.
After I’d been doing CC for several months, my son decided he’d like to try it as well. We bought him a basic tuxedo for his 21st birthday. But, again, second-hand regalia made it possible for him to actually join the ranks of the CC itself. There’s no way he, or we, could afford to buy a brand new set of regalia on a “maybe.”
If my son ultimately decides he wants to continue, we can piece something together for him from eBay or other sources. If not, the tuxedo can still be worn for plenty of other events by itself. (Had the tuxedo not been a birthday gift, we probably could’ve started him with a second-hand one of those as well, for even less money.)
I do know that neither he nor I can afford another $510 for this new uniform, especially after the amount we’ve spent so far. If it’s a requirement for the Color Corps, our Assembly is going to be losing two Color Corps participants. At least.
And, Color Corps aside, assuming the official $510 suit is the new requirement for even going through the Fourth Degree Exemplification … think how many people will not even join the degree at all. I probably would not have. With an inexpensive rental tux not allowed, my son certainly would not have. I know lots of others who would not, either.
Back to the Color Corps. What about the larger issue? Isn’t the traditional regalia hopelessly dated? Don’t we need to freshen up our look? Keep with the times? Show we’re not some stodgy old guys who are stuck in the distant past?
To the contrary. I love the pure anachronism. Our uniforms are completely out of step with modernity — and that’s a good thing. When we process into a church, or another event, we are an instant reminder of long and proud traditions that are being faithfully kept.
And I love the ceremony of getting dressed in my uniform, even though it does take some extra time. First, at home, the tuxedo, with its French cuffs and bow tie. And then, at the church, with the other members of the CC, as each of us puts on his service baldric, sword, cape, feathered chapeau, and white gloves. There’s an additional sense of fraternity as each of us gives a careful examination of the other members’ uniforms, and then helps straighten a cape if necessary.
Finally, as we arrange ourselves in formation and prepare to enter the church, there is nothing quite like the looks that young children give us, their eyes as big as saucers, as they mouth a silent “WOW!”
There is very little “Wow” with the new uniforms.
I’m astounded that K of C Supreme didn’t anticipate the depth and magnitude of the reaction to this change. Clearly, they grossly underestimated not only the financial impact of the change — but also the strength of attachment to the traditional regalia among not only Knights in the Color Corps, but among so many Catholics who may not even be Knights. In terms of marketing miscalculations, the roll out of New Coke, and the disastrous backlash it spawned, is the only incident in my lifetime that I can compare it to.
I sincerely hope Supreme recognizes this proposed change — well-intentioned as it may have been — is as much of a mistake as was Coca-Cola’s tampering with its traditional formula. Above all, I hope Supreme reaffirms the “classic” CC uniforms as soon as possible.
If the change in uniform stands, and leaves many Knights unable or uninterested in serving in the CC, this could have a devastating impact on the larger life of many Assemblies. Taking away the opportunity to serve in the CC takes away a big reason for serving as an Assembly officer, or even bothering to go to Assembly meetings. Going forward, some may simply limit themselves to attending K of C Council meetings at their local parish, and do little more than pay their annual dues at the Fourth Degree Assembly.
Regardless of how this controversy turns out, and regardless of whether I am able to continue serving in the Color Corps, I will remain an active and dedicated member of the Order. I joined the Knights of Columbus to serve, and will continue doing so through our parish’s local K of C council.
Our council is very active, and provides a great deal of service to the parish and the community. It’s an absolute blast joining my brother Knights to cook and serve fish on Fridays of Lent, support local charities, and to help in all the myriad behind-the-scenes ways that make parish life richer.
I do hope I can continue serving in the Color Corps, in the traditional regalia, but the K of C is so much larger than the Color Corps.