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When Amal Clooney and husband George met Pope Francis earlier this week, the couple exuded the elegance we’ve come to expect of them, with George in a dark suit and Amal in an Atelier Versace dress and Jimmy Choo heels. Though the couple nailed their Vatican styling, their visit raised the question — how does one decide what to wear to meet the Pope?
“The basic rule is modesty and respect,” says associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America Chad Pecknold. One aspect of this respect is shown by wearing appropriately formal looks, like a dark suit for men.
“The Pope is the head of a very small city-state,” Pecknold notes, “but it’s a pretty influential one. He also happens to be the Successor of Saint Peter, and has some pull with God. So wear a tie.”
Looking nice for the Pope doesn’t mean peacocking with funky colors or patterns, according to Rocco Palmo, editor of Catholic news site Whispers in the Loggia.
“It’s amazing how all sorts of people — even Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple who famously never wears a tie — wore a black suit, white shirt and black tie to meet the Pope,” Palmo points out. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney. Nobody messes with this.”
Besides lending an air of appropriate formality, suits for men offer the added benefit of keeping the wearer covered up — another important concern in the Vatican.
For women, the right combination of formality and modesty is most commonly achieved by wearing long sleeves and a skirt or dress that’s at least knee-length. Traditionally, this would be accompanied by a lace or silk head covering called a mantilla, as a nod to the centuries-old custom of women keeping their heads covered in worship settings. Modern alternatives to the mantilla include wearing a hat, as Amal Clooney did, or foregoing a head covering altogether, as Angelina Jolie did in her 2015 meeting with the Pope.
Interestingly enough, while the celebrity media was slightly critical, Catholic and religious commentators noted that the length of Amal’s dress was appropriate for the occasion.
FORMAL WEAR: George and Amal Clooney attended “Un Muro o Un Ponte” Seminary held by Pope Francis at the Paul VI Hall in Vatican City, Vatican on May 29. (Photo: Getty Images)
Even though head coverings are no longer required by the papacy, they offer a way to express respect, according to Religion News Service national reporter David Gibson. “That was always the tradition, that women covered their heads and that men uncovered their heads. Even today, you can’t wear a hat into a Catholic church as a layman. You’ll be told to take it off,” he notes.
And lest the rule seem suspiciously gendered to modern ears, Gibson points out that like all Catholic bishops, “the Pope is wearing a skull cap to cover his own head.”
While no footwear guidelines are specified, both men and women would be well advised to wear dressy shoes rather than sneakers or flip-flops. Palmo notes, however, that the cobblestones and numerous grand staircases around the Vatican mean that “stilettos are probably not the best choice” for women.
Perhaps the most unexpected norm surrounding papal-appropriate garb is that pertaining to color. Guests are expected to show up in head-to-toe black, as if in mourning garb. “The black was so that no one in the room, even the greatest of the royal ladies, would outshine the Pope,” explains Palmo.
The intriguing exception to this rule comes in the form of the privilège du blanc, a tradition that allows for a select handful of Catholic queens or princesses to wear white when visiting the Pope. According to Palmo, this tradition originated as a way to distinguish Catholic royalty from their non-Catholic counterparts during the Reformation.
“This tradition was geared specifically toward women, because men — whether kings or other heads of state — would always be in military uniform when attending the Pope,” he says. This exclusive privilege has been exercised by royals like Princess Charlene of Monaco and Queen Paola of Belgium.
Transgressing the norms around who gets to wear white in the Pope’s presence, as former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Blair did on her visit to Rome in 2006, is a faux pas that some can read as taking too high a view of one’s status. However, both Palmo and Gibson agree that these transgressions seem to be one more vehemently opposed by the Pope’s traditionalist followers than the Holy Father himself.
“Though the papal house was always very punctilious about these things, that’s changing,” says Gibson. “Pope Francis hasn’t dispensed with everything, but he’s certainly more relaxed about the dress code.”
MEET THE POPE: Angelina Jolie greeted Pope Francis at the Vatican on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo: AP Images/L’Osservatore Romano Pool)
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