VATICAN CITY — The favorite guessing game in Rome these days is who will be the next pope. Few take it more seriously than the Gammarelli family, tailors to the Vatican for more than 200 years. For the past seven conclaves, Gammarelli has prepared three identical white outfits in small, medium and large for the new pontiff’s first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Here’s a look at what goes into making a new pope look fabulous for the historic moment:
The papal outfits are on display in the window of the small wood-paneled store nestled in the shadow of the Pantheon, where the family moved in 1850 from the original “bottega” (artisan shop) founded just around the corner in 1798. Before the start of the conclave, the outfits will be delivered to the Vatican and left in a room next to the Sistine Chapel, where the newly elected pope changes into his new clothes.
“We hope we got it right,” said Lorenzo Gammarelli, the sixth-generation scion of the family business. He explained that the measurements this time around came from a study of the sizes on file of their habitual cardinal customers.
If the pope is their most illustrious shopper, the Gammarelli’s daily bread-and-butter comes from dressing prelates in Rome and abroad, in particular the cardinals who will be electing the new pontiff.
Will it fit?
The Gammarellis make a new set of outfits for each conclave. And sewing custom-made clothes for an unknown customer has had its share of hitches.
Back in 1958, the rotund John XXIII appeared on the balcony with safety pins holding together the back of his cassock. The brand new pope had inadvertently put on the small size, and attendants had to slit the robe so that from the front all looked well.
Twenty years later, the broad-shouldered, athletic John Paul II had to squeeze into the large size. Most recently in April 2005, Benedict XVI showed up on the balcony with the sleeves of the black sweater he had worn in the chilly Sistine Chapel showing through the white sleeves of the cassock.
Papal dress code
So what exactly does a pope wear, then, for his first encounter with the flock? The basic garment is the hand-stitched white wool cassock with white cape and wide silk sleeves. The cassock is fastened by 33 silk buttons recalling the years of the life of Christ, and is worn with a silk brocade sash with gold fringe. Later, this sash will have the new pope’s papal seal embroidered on it.
Over the cassock, he will wear the classic burgundy red mozzetta, a short elbow-length cape worn by high prelates for formal occasions, and a gold-embroidered stole — either red or white. The mozzetta in the Gammarelli window is the velvet white fur-trimmed version, long in disuse until Benedict brought it back for winter outings. Otherwise, the mozzetta is in silk brocade.
According to Gammarelli, papal red differs from cardinal red. Whereas cardinal red signifies the willingness of the individual to offer up his life for the church, the deeper papal red (actually close to purple) derives from the Roman emperors and originally signified imperial power. Over the years, the basic color became white so that the pope could always be easily identified.
Head and feet
The pope wears a white “zucchetto,” the beanie-like hat that bishops wear in purple and cardinals have in red.
“Some men have lots of hair, some hardly any, this makes a difference,” Gammarrelli said. Here, too, the tailors offer three sizes.
Benedict attracted a lot of fashionista comment on his bright red shoes, which at first were identified as Prada but later disowned by the luxury label. In fact, red shoes make up part of the traditional papal garb. Until the mid-1960s, popes wore red velvet slippers embroidered with a gold cross, and until not long before that, people paid homage to the pope by kissing his slippered foot.
Eventually, each new pope chooses his own shoe style. John Paul, for example, favored a sturdy loafer in a toned-down maroon red. But Gamarelli holds sway in the new pope’s balcony debut footwear — and is offering three sizes of a simple, albeit very red, moccasin.
Tradition and personal choice
The Gammarellis dress the pope from head to toe, from zucchetto to white socks, but underwear is a personal choice. “Each brings his own,” Gammarelli said.
Whether the new pope keeps on wearing Gammarelli is also a personal choice. Of the seven popes they have officially dressed, starting with Pius XI in 1922, only Pius XII declined their services for his papacy, preferring his aristocratic family’s personal tailor.
Benedict XVI shared his favors between Gammarelli and the local ecclesiastic tailors nearer the Vatican whom he befriended in his many years as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Could the pope one day modernize his wardrobe to include the “clergyman” — the dark suit with a white priest’s collar used by most priests working outside the Vatican?
“I hope not,” Gammarelli said. “The pope is different. He has another role and importance. His way of dressing should reflect this.”