Pope and circumstance

Image of Vanessa Friedman

It’s Easter, which perhaps explains my recent fixation with the new Pope. After all, for the past week he has been conducting the rites of Holy Week, which will culminate in Sunday’s mass, where thousands will once again throng St Peter’s Square, listening to his words, being led by his example ... and checking out his outfits for a sign.

I am serious about the latter. Will Pope Francis adopt the paschal mozzetta, a white damask ermine-trimmed capelet, as brought back by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI after John Paul II, had opted to send it into retirement at the back of the papal closet? Or will he stick with his plain white robes, as he has so far, reinforcing the message that this is a new regime?

I’m betting on the latter. But, either way, it’s clear that whatever he wears, it will have meaning. Since his selection at the papal conclave, this Pope has been sending signals with his robes, perfectly calibrated for all to receive. If anyone doubted the importance of image as a communication device in the modern world, even for one of the oldest regimes, this is pretty hard to dismiss.

Indeed, in story after story, clothing is mentioned in association with Pope Francis’s name almost as often as the fact he is the first pontiff from South America: “A Pope in sandals to lead the church” (FT); “Pope Francis takes Vatican trappings to a new plain” (LA Times); “Pope Francis, when it comes to Vatican attire, prefers a simplistic approach” (Washington Post). His clothes are being used as shorthand to express, or assume, his point of difference.

After all, Pope Francis hasn’t really had a chance to do anything in terms of influencing doctrine – except appear in moments broadcast to millions. Whether or not they can understand what he is saying without the aid of the newscasters who act as intermediaries, they can all make their own assumption based on how he looks.

There was a very clear rationale behind his decision to eschew the more fancy, ermine-trimmed red and purple robes of Pope Benedict in favour of plain white vestments; to swap the gold cross for an iron version. The choices telegraphed the importance of humility; the importance of recognising and working with the poor; and the need, in a time of austerity, to acknowledge the suffering and deprivations of others. It was a discrete but unmistakable announcement of a new agenda, using the tools most immediately and least aggressively available. As a friend who makes clerical vestments in New York observed: “This Pope has made the break very early, and very clearly.”

See, Benedict was a well-known clotheshorse (relatively speaking, of course), known for bringing back not just the capelets but also the winter version, a red velvet ermine-trimmed style; wearing mitres (those tall folded caps), which towered over those favoured by John Paul II; and reintroducing the camauro, a little red velvet cap trimmed in ermine. He even once appeared in mirrored Gucci sunglasses. His fondness for finery was such that all the ermine got some Italian animal rights groups up in arms, and there were rumours that his red leather loafers – a footwear tradition allowed to lapse by John Paul in favour of brown shoes – were made by Prada.

Though widely repeated, this turned out to be untrue (the shoes were made by a cobbler named Antonio Arellano), but not before US Esquire magazine named Pope Benedict its 2007 “accessoriser of the year”. As much as anything, his penchant for the pomp of his circumstance sent a message about power and tradition, and keeping to the classic line. According to my vestment-maker friend, this created something of a fashion trend in the Church, with sumptuous vestments experiencing a broader renaissance. He thinks the opposite may now occur – as, reportedly, does Massimiliano Gammarelli, head papal couturier, who has raised the possibility of a dress-down trend.

There is precedent for all this. The Catholic Church has long understood the use of clothing as communication device. According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, it began in the 6th century, when the Council of Braga in Portugal mandated that “clergy wear a tunic reaching to the feet”. In the 13th century, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed priests wear simple garments “closed in the front”. In 1725, an earlier Benedict made it illegal for priests to assume the guise of civilians.

Since then, dress has developed to denote hierarchy, especially via colour and trim – in public ceremonies, parish priests wear all black; cardinals, scarlet; patriarchs, archbishops, etc, purple; the Holy Father, white – as well as allegiance to the church and consecration of one’s life to God. “It’s a connection to history, and an overt signal that we honour the past,” says my friend. “Also, it is a way to preserve artisanal skills, be they embroidery or weaving, that have existed for thousands of years.”

So why do we care about any of this, those of us who are not Catholic or fashion editors?

Because there is a lesson in here for all of us who wear a uniform, be it religious, military or professional (ie, suits). Indeed, in putting Pope Benedict on its best-dressed list, Esquire noted it had bestowed the award to acknowledge his contribution in highlighting the importance of “signature. It could be a pocket square or a chunky watch or a tie clip, but make it your own.” These days, that’s as close to a commandment as fashion comes.


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