Clothes and the Man: How popes communicate through clothing

Satin capes. Leather shoes. Embroidered stoles. Ermine trim. Gold rings. What sounds like a list of extravagant accessories from a fashion magazine inspired much discussion during the recent papal transition. Naturally, news reports and expert analysis focused on the historic nature of Benedict XVI’s resignation and the election of a pope of firsts—first Jesuit, first Francis, first from the Americas. Woven into the media’s narratives, a parallel narrative unfolded as fabric, thread and robes provided a visual account of a church in transition. Even now, more than two months after Pope Francis’ election, the news media follows the pope’s every move to see what he will “say” next through his actions and appearance. Francis has already established himself as a pope of images and dress has proven to be an important part of his vocabulary.  

The richly symbolic garments of Catholic prelates have always been infused with meaning. They speak a language that is theological, historical and structural. A “vestimentary code”—everything from the ermine-trimmed mozetta of the pope to the simple brown habit of Franciscan friars—contributes to a sort of “Catholic dialect” of clothing that communicates within the church itself and to the world at large. Shortly after the election of Pope Francis, Matt Malone, S.J., wrote a piece for America placing the attention to clothing in the context of a “sacramental worldview,” where symbols, and particularly material symbols, matter. He also reminds us that proper Catholic sartorial protocol has been meticulously legislated.

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Yet, transitional times often see the challenging and relaxing of past norms, and the establishment of new ones. Clothing participates in conversations about the past and the future. It is not just that clothing matters, but who wears what and when, stitching together a grammar of transition.

The unprecedented circumstances of Pope Benedict’s abdication required new definitions. Unlike the previous two popes who resigned, Benedict was neither coerced by a council nor locked up by his successor. Though he has vowed to remain hidden to the world, he will continue to occupy a position that has not been occupied before. The Vatican spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, S.J., was dogged with questions about new definitions: What would Benedict be called? Where would he live? And what would he wear? At a press conference two days before Benedict’s resignation, Lombardi announced that the pope emeritus would continue to wear the white cassock and skullcap, but without the sash and elbow-length cape known as a mozzetta. The media also made much of Benedict’s decision to put aside his famous red shoes for brown leather loafers made in Leon, Mexico.

For a church with a long history, including a history of rival claimants to the papacy, setting careful precedents was important. The dress of the pope emeritus establishes his identity and relationship to his previous office and to his successor. The white cassock recognizes the place Benedict held in the succession of St. Peter—reverting to the black cassock or the scarlet accessories of cardinals would have been a disrespectful demotion. The absence of the mozzetta carefully distinguishes him from Francis, and from others exercising episcopal authority. Benedict’s removal of the white sash, or fascia—reserved for the reigning pope—signals that he is no longer functioning as part of the church hierarchy. Putting aside red shoes reserves the privileged combination of white and red for the new pope.

Rome's Tailor

Moving from the clothing of the former pope to those of the future pope, the media became fascinated with Gammarelli’s, the Roman tailor shop charged with making the ensemble for the new pope’s first appearance. A Roman tradition when it comes to papal elections, the display of the papal outfit in three sizes—ready for any size pope!—served almost as a pre-conclave chimney. When the cassocks disappeared from the window, it meant the conclave was ready to begin. The empty garments invited speculation in the days between their unveiling and their disappearance. Which one would be filled and by whom? All three would enter the Vatican, but, as with the cardinals themselves, only one would remain.

Speculation abounded about which cardinals were papabili, and the international media became fascinated by some of the American cardinals. Among these was Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a Franciscan, who for a period participated in daily press briefings. Appearing dressed in his brown Franciscan habit, O’Malley was asked if he would swap his current garb for the papal white. O’Malley laughed away the sartorial question, joking that he planned no wardrobe change because he did not expect to be elected. One wonders what the Capuchin would have done if elected. When appointed cardinal in 2006, he made it clear that he would continue to wear his habit, and he joked about the vibrant red he was expected to wear, a stark contrast to his usual earthy brown. The question posed to O’Malley about his choice of clothing, though tongue in cheek, revealed the kind of speculation that accompanied this transition. He was a non-traditional candidate with a shot—not Italian, not European, not even a native Romance language speaker. To many he represented an appealing “alternative pope” and his eschewing of the traditional papal wardrobe, or at least speculation about it, revealed the hopes of some that someone like him, a candidate elected from a religious order, would introduce a new kind of papal leadership. Though O’Malley himself didn’t “expect a change of wardrobe,” in hindsight we know that this kind of speculation was not without merit.

In some more unusual moments, unauthorized clothing was used by some to challenge or disrupt the election process. Photos of a man who posed as a bishop and nearly made his way into the early pre-conclave proceedings circulated on the internet. His clothing temporarily aided him, but ultimately betrayed him. Ralph Napierski (who also went by the name Basilius) claimed to be a legitimately ordained Catholic bishop in the line of the late Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc and head of the otherwise unknown order “Corpus Dei.” (He also has a blog called “JesusYoga.org”). Dressed in a black cassock with a fedora, sash and pectoral cross, Napierski was able to pass through Vatican security and even took pictures with some of the cardinals. But he was ejected when a close look at his clothing gave him away—his cassock was too short and his sash was actually just a scarf. In another incident, Italian police detained Janice Sevre-Duszynska who came to St. Peter’s Square dressed in a white alb and stole carrying a sign that read “Women priests are here.” Even the lack of clothing acted as a voice of protest when a group of topless women protested in the Piazza calling for women’s ordination.

Francis Speaks

From his first appearance, Pope Francis has communicated his vision of the Petrine ministry through a visual code of sartorial choices. When he first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, what he was wearing—and in this case, what he was not wearing—spoke volumes before he even said his now famous “Buona sera!” That Francis chose not to wear the red mozzetta with white ermine trim and the gold embroidered papal stole—a tradition since at least the time of Pope Pius XI’s election in 1922 went unnoticed to most, but to those who understood the language of ecclesiastical garments, this was a shout. Moreover, instead of the gold pectoral cross, Francis emerged wearing the silver cross he had worn as bishop of Buenos Aires. He donned the stole for the papal blessing, then promptly removed it. Like his choice of the name of Francis, the new pope was sending several messages, not all of them immediately clear.

Even St. Francis spoke volumes through clothing. In his youth, he shocked his family and his bishop by stripping naked before them, casting aside his extravagant clothing in a public act of self-dedication to a life of poverty. Pope Francis’ act might be seen in a similar light, as a kind of Franciscan disrobing. Yet there is an ambiguity in the language of dress. Some understood the pope’s choices as indicative of the simplicity and austerity of his namesake, a vestimentary expression of a church that he proclaimed would embrace the poor. Others, however, have seen it as an assault on pre-Vatican II tradition and a renunciation of the efforts of Benedict XVI to advocate a hermeneutic of continuity for understanding the council. Benedict masterfully employed a vestimentary language in service of this vision, reintroducing luxurious papal vestments that had fallen out of use as an expression of the majesty and honor of the Supreme Pontiff. Even in the days following Francis’ election, we learned more about his wardrobe choices. No red shoes, no ornate liturgical vestments and simple mitres. A comparison of Francis’ and Benedict’s vesture at the 2013 and 2012 Easter Urbi et Orbi addresses accentuates the differences.

As a scholar of early Christianity, what brought my attention to all this recent talk about clothing is a current project of mine on the representation of clothing in early Christian literature and art. One piece of clothing in particular, the philosopher’s robe, sparked debate in the early church—was it appropriate apparel for the Christian? Some, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian, found it to be the perfect garment for the Christian sage, while others, like Pope Damasus, condemned it as the garb of the faithless. Meanwhile, images of Jesus and the apostles dressed in the robe decorated churches from west to east. This ancient debate over dress was expressed in words and images, typifying the doctrinal and cultural issues facing the young church. In the current period of transition and expectation, clothing still plays a significant role in the fabric of Catholic Christian life. From mere curiosity to ecclesial vision, papal garments in particular will continue to be observed and decoded for indications of how and where Pope Francis will lead the church.

View a selection of papal clothing choices.

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Andrew Varga
4 years 10 months ago
Maybe Francis can get Marini to stop wearing those silly lace teddies...
Thom Nickels
4 years 10 months ago
I prefer traditional liturgical vestments, cassocks, etc. to the rather drab Novus Ordo potato sack vestments and those absurdly small miters that seem to be shrinking as the years go by. This new "low church" approach by Pope Francis is pretty uninspiring and "Mennonite" plain. The Eastern Orthodox would never wear potato sack vestments or keep updating their liturgical garments to "prove" to the world that its Church is on the "humble" track. This is just stupid.Catholic churches already look like Protestant meeting halls, so now we have to have bishops and priests who resemble secular court room judges? The new pope's cantankerous rejection of tradition is a kind of willful streak of selfishness. When will the Catholic Church stop its love affair with fashion novelities?
Brenda Nightingale
4 years 10 months ago
Jesus wore very simple garb for his time...why should his priests be any different?
Francis O'BEACHAIN
4 years 10 months ago
Jesus wore a seamless garment, woven from a single piece of fabric. Expensive. Had nowhere to live, so borrowed Peter's home and buried in a borrowed grave. Paul alternated between extremes. The Popes ' vestments and a priest's are pointers beyond himself to the Office of Peter. We can get all hung up on externals and miss the holiness or the humility of the person. Saintly people wear hair shirts or pebbles in their shoes under their flashy robes, Cardinal Cooke of New York, St Thomas More did.
Anne Chapman
4 years 10 months ago
The new pope's choice of clothing is so welcome to those who despaired of the church. It had seemed that too many of these men in fancy dress preferred materialistic values - displays of conspicuous consumption, of outrageous wealth, of empire - to those taught by Jesus in the gospels. Let us pray that these outward symbols of clothing and "accessories" truly represent a change in the direction of the church and a return to the path of Jesus and away from that of Constantine.
Edward Starkey
4 years 10 months ago
Congratulationas to Prof. Urbano for opening a new door for meaningful analysis of the Pope in particular and the Church in general. As a student in Rome in 1965-66 I was enamored of the movement to do away with the priest's cassock. In the U.S. this most often found expression on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities where priest-teachers would often wear shirts and ties with non-black suits for formal occasions (someone has recently pointed out that this was Joseph Ratzinger's uniform in the early years after the Council) and bluejeans with rumpled tweed jackets for the classroom and other campus activitiees. The significance? The priest is one with the people, in this case students and lay faculty, rather than a figure somewhere out between the people and a distant God. And yet in my former community there is a movement back to the cassock.Thanks again to Prof.Urbano for reminding us that clothes have meaning.

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