How Pope Francis Made Every Day at the Vatican Casual Friday
And why his pared down vestments are a lot better than Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie.
Photograph by NurImages via Getty Images.
Let me tell you something about Pope Francis: he has amazing socks. They are that precious, sacred red, and they come in 100% wool for the winter and 100% cotton for the summer, and they are a mere €20 and made by Gammarelli, the Italian tailor that has dressed the Vatican elite since 1978.
But you don’t usually get to see the socks, because Francis’s trousers are admittedly not perfectly tailored, and his pant cuffs pool a bit onto his black shoes, which are usually hidden beneath his robes. But if there’s one thing the Catholic Church has taught us, it’s that we don’t have to see it to believe it, and so Francis has become famous for these socks.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming Costume Institute exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, will explore the influence Catholicism has had on fashion. In advance interviews, curator Andrew Bolton has most consistently referenced designers whose work was heavily influenced by their Catholic upbringings, including Coco Chanel, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen. In their work, both the dense opulence of the clergy’s garments and the guilt-ridden purity of its followers are evident—it’s an aesthetic and an emotional influence. But the exhibition will also include a selection of vestments from the Vatican’s collection, and with that in mind, it’s worth exploring the effect Pope Francis himself has had on fashion within the Catholic Church. After all, as Bolton pointed out in a recent interview with Vatican news source Crux Now, in response to any anticipated backlash to the show’s premise, “The pope wears a dress.”
As I wrote here in November, when the exhibition was first announced, Pope Francis’s casual style—what was referred to as “papal athleisure” by one anonymous Vatican tailor (I know!!)—has ruffled feathers within the Vatican. “It’s not as if before the clothes were more luxurious or pricey, maybe a bit more flashy and rich with details,” tailor Raniero Mancinelli vented to Crux Now last June. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, wore red slippers that were rumored to be designed by Prada (in fact, they were made by a cobbler in Northern Italy named Adriano Stefanelli). “Today this has changed a bit,” Mancinelli continued. “Now with Pope Francis’s direction, people want things that are much lighter, simpler and more sober…and consequently less expensive.”
Francis has done much to relax the dress codes of the past; as a 2016 story on the anniversary of Gammarelli pointed out, Francis does not use the red mozzetta half-cape that covers the shoulders, and prefers a more pared down version of the classic pope uniform. Even to a layman’s eye, his look does appear sober, when we picture the towering mitre and fur-trimmed capes of popes past. Francis is, if not necessarily casual—he’s wearing robes and a zucchetto, after all)—still far less formal than his predecessors. Mancinelli speculated that Francis did not even properly launder his vestment: “I don’t exclude the possibility that in the evening he just puts it to wash, and wears it again the next morning,” he said. (The Gammarelli story from 2016 also noted that popes have to change their cassocks every two months, because the silver of their crosses oxidizes and stains the fabric. His generally tidy appearance suggests he does at least that.)
Esquire named the Pope the Best-Dressed Man in the World in 2013, which seems like a desperate bid to heaven, where I know they care a lot about appearance. In the accompanying article, the magazine specifically pointed out the relaxed dress code he championed: “the opulent jewelry and fur-lined capes of yore have given way to humbler dress, and this break from aesthetic tradition says a lot of the man and what he hopes to achieve while doing his earthly duties.” But to take these changes merely as a sign of humility doesn’t quite do justice to the nuance of his wardrobe.
Let’s compare Francis’s style to—forgive me, Father—Mark Zuckerberg’s. When Zuckerberg testified in Congress in April, much was made about his suit, which was a departure from his emblematic hoodie and jeans. In a 2014 interview, Zuckerberg explained the logic behind his sloppy-simple wardrobe, saying, there is “a bunch of psychology theory that even making small decisions around what you wear or what you eat for breakfast, they kind of make you tired and consume your energy.... I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” He wanted, he said, “to make as few decisions as possible except how to best serve this community.” I don’t mean to imply that Cambridge Analytica would never have wrought havoc on our lives if Zuckerberg had put a little effort into his appearance, but it’s an intriguing distinction: Francis has spent a limited amount of money and resources on his appearance, but the amount of care is still there.
As Crux Now wrote last week about the Church’s participation in the upcoming exhibition, “Blessed Pop Paul VI wrote in his 1975 encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi that ‘the split between the Gospel and culture is the tragedy of our times.’ One rather outside-the-box way in which the Church is trying to heal that rupture will come in New York on May 7, in the form of the fashion world’s Oscars night—the annual Met Gala, which this year is devoted to the theme of ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.’” Let Francis’s tasteful style be a reminder: may the Gospel—whatever that is to you—always merge with the culture.