INTERVIEWS BY LORENZO GIGOTTI
PHOTOS BY FEDERICA PALMARIN
Besides being Europe's only absolute monarch, the highest authority of the Catholic Church, and the head of state of the smallest country in the world, the Pope is one of few human beings who can claim to be officially infallible. It must be pretty great. In truth, it's a sort of Catch-22 because the dogma of papal infallibility was decreed by the Catholic Church, which the Pope obviously leads, but anyway: the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error. Therefore, he must be the best dressed man in the entire planet. He can't make mistakes! There's no bad hair days for the Pope, no possibility of a fashion faux-pas. He's infallible! And who says? The Holy Spirit says, that's who! And it's not like the guy doesn't push the boundaries. Green vestments embroidered with crosses, tiny white skullcaps, ankle-length silk robes, red leather shoes and
(the short, hooded scarlet capes worn over the robes) are all daring choices. And they're all produced according to the conventions of traditional Roman ecclesiastical tailoring, a style evolved over the past seven centuries.
The current Pope, Benedict XVI, sparked a small tailoiring controversy when accounts emerged of his ditching Gammarelli, the official tailor of the Holy See since 1793, in favor of competitor Mancinelli. Gammarelli angrily denies ever having been set aside, although Euroclero, a relative newcomer to the business, also claims to be dressing its “first Pope.” In keeping with the Catholic Church's notorious secrecy and hush-hush policy, the entire scandal had been very confusing and mysterious. Nobody really knows who’s dressing the Pope at this point. We decided to send a few of our people down to the Vatican to interview some of these tailors, hoping to find out more about the whole sorry mess. We soon found out that either nobody in the Vatican was willing to sing out of tune, or that they have no clue either. We didn't get any dirt on the Pope's clothing choices. But we did get a glance in the world of clerical tailoring, straight from the heart of the Holy See.
Raniero Mancinelli has been a clerical tailor for more than four decades. He’s the proprietor of a shop in Borgo Pio, a few steps away from St. Peter's square, the one that the Pope theoretically swithced to after ditching Gammarelli. He wouldn’t talk about it but admits to having dressed both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Vice: How did you become an ecclesistical tailor?
I went to a private Catholic school and I specialized in textile design. It wasn't called textile design at the time, of course. Around the beginning of 60s, before the Second Vatican Council, I figured out there was a demand for ecclesiastical tailors and I saw an opportunity, so I started to specialize in that sector.
Is there a technical difference between a normal tailor and an ecclesiastical tailor?
Not really. The main difference is that we have to know exactly what all the priests and the bishops and archbishops and cardinals wear—the whole hierarchy.
What kind of fabric do you use?
In the 60s we mostly used silk, but today it is the exclusive cloth of the Holy Father. White is the perfect color for Him. It's very delicate, and silk is perfect for it. For the cardinals I use lambswool and terital, nothing exceptional. I also use damask for the liturgical wear. But I almost always use Italian cloth.
So what are the specific requirements for clerical wear?
The cassock, when worn, should fall well on the body and around the neck, without creases or wrinkles. Of course, when a cardinal or priest wears it he has to be able to move freely and not feel constricted by it. The collar has to be of the right height, around 1.5 inches, but it has to be proportionate to his neck so that he doesn't look too “hanged” on one side, or all wrapped up on the other.
Forgive my curiosity, but what do preists wear beneath the cassock?
The same that we do! On top of that, they wear a white camisole that goes beneath the liturgical wear. But underneath the cassock they wear normal pants. If it's warm they wear shorts.
Do the different colors have specific meanings?
Sure. White is for Christmas and Easter, green is for normal mass, red is for the martyrs, and purple for Advent and Lent.
Can you tell me about the differences in clothing among different ecclesiastical orders?
The so-called Roman is a cossack with external buttons and with borders of a different color; the Salesian is a black tunic with hidden buttons. The Jesuits wear no buttons—it's a simple black cassock that looks somewhat like a sack with a sash. These are the main orders and the main differences between them. The other orders are all inspired by elements of these.
I really dig the Jesuits who wear hoodies.
Ah, you mean the monk's cassock. I never cut one of those. They are very wide and shapeless, with a shoulder cape and a hoodie. I know that until a short while ago they used to sew them themselves.
Do you think the Pope is something of a fashion icon in the clerical world?
Absolutely. If the Pope wears a particular hat, for example, we always get clients who ask for a copy of that precise hat. Right now Benedict XVI wears a ring called a “fisherman's ring,” and many cardinals and bishops ask for it.
I also heard the Pope's current PA is something of a sex symbol. Apparently he inspired designers.
No, no! He's an excellent assistant. He's a hard worker, who always gives his best to help the Pope in every possible way. But in terms of fashion, he wears a simple buttoned black cassock.
Isn't he a good looking guy?
Well, that's what female journalists say.
Can we men say it too?
Yes, sure. He has good presence. He's a good-looking blond!
What's your rapport with your clients?
I've known the majority of my clients for years. They come here first as ministers, and often I see them grow into monsignori, bishops, or cardinals. I often have very confidential relationships with them. When they come in I read their minds and I foresee what they need. I often foresee if they've been promoted without them having to tell me. They accept this from me.
Who spends the most?
Americans. Lately, with the weak dollar, they're slightly penalized but until a few years ago the American client was my favorite client, the one who'd spend the most, especially because it's very difficult to find quality clerical wear in the States. Rome, in this sector, is the peak of the world. Foreigners buy everything here. Our excellence is guaranteed.
Are there specific times of the year in which you work more than others?
The end of the school year, because the kids in the seminaries go back home and need new clothes for the summer. Then, of course, around the feast of St. Peter and Paul we have many cardinals and bishops that want new cassocks. Demand for liturgical wear stays constant throughout the year.
So how much does this cost someone?
It depends. I can't say. Put it this way: a bit more than what you think, a bit less than what you imagine.
And who pays?
Everyone pays their own!
Do priests prefer to have female or male tailors?
They prefer men, of course. They feel more at ease. Things now are very different, but years ago they wouldn't even allow my wife to serve them.
Roberto Maurelli started his company 40 years ago. He's primarily a distributor of ecclesiastical wear, clerical furnishings, and robes for first communions, but he also deals in mantels and insignia for guilds and orders of knights. Today his son runs his shop.
How did you begin?
As a clerk. By the 70s I had saved enough money to open my shop in via Fontana, close to the Holy See and the Vicarage, the seat of the Bishop of Rome.
Can you describe your clientele for us?
Vicars, nuns, laymen. Everybody shops here from all over Italy, from Lombardy to Sicily. We also get the occasional cardinal and bishop.
Is there a difference between Northern Italian and Southern Italian priests?
In the traditional South, they are more attached to old ways of dressing. In Sicily I send countless numbers of black frocks, the ones that reach your ankles. In the North there are many more priests who wear shirts and trousers. It should be the opposite, keeping in mind the different climate.
Can anybody wear cassocks?
Not at all. There's a law that prohibits laymen from wearing these clothes, exactly like they are not allowed to impersonate police officers. In Italian movies, if you pay close enough attention, you'll notice that clerical wear is never the same as in real life. But you know, if the client pays I can't say no. If he then goes out wearing the cassock, that's his business, he's the one committing the crime. We often find laymen who want to buy cassocks as humorous presents.
I heard that the Pope wears Prada shoes. Is it true?
I heard this joke the other day. It can't be more than that. But in any case if he wants to wear Prada shoes, that's his business. I think it's just a rumor. You know, as I always say, gossip doesn't cost anything.
And how much does your clerical wear cost?
Jackets and trousers cost the same as in laymen’s shops. The
[the long sleeveless mantle that priests wear when performing sacramental duties –Ed.] varies a lot. We start from a minimum of 50 Euros for the lamest one up to 5,000 Euros for the hand-sewn pure silk. But let me tell you: We only sell one or two of those a year. The ones that cost two or three hundred Euros… Well, we sell one of those every single day.
But you sell many more things besides robes and cloth, right?
Oh yes! Crucifixes, icons, rosaries, rings, we have it all. We also sell overnight briefcases with all the equpiment to celebrate Mass. It's for travelling priests. We don't sell many. They are often a gift for newly ordained priests when they celebrate their first Mass. They tend to keep it their whole life.
You also sell wine?
That is nothing but fermented grape juice. The wine for Mass can't be anything but pure. It can be either white or red and is produced by normal winemakers.
So it's not something I could buy to drink at home?
Is it any good?
What do you think is the future of ecclesiastical tailoring?
Well, once our generation goes—Gammarelli, Mancinelli, Barbiconi—there's not much more. That will be it. We are the last generation of tailors who have learned how to do this by hand. More modern industries have attempted to make these clothes in factories. But what will happen when a cardinal wants a tailor-made cassock?
Elisabetta Bianchetti is the proprietor and director of Manifatture Mario Bianchetti, a family-run company foiunded in 1912 that specializes in producing clothing for nuns.
I found a statement on your website that says you aim to “best interpret the concept of religious wear while adapting it to modern times.” What does that mean?
The concept of religious wear for me is this: a clerical man, today is a man amonsgt many, but he still has to have a unique identity. He has to be able to be picked from a crowd. He has to wear a sort of uniform that reveals his role. But I see this uniform in a philosophical way. On the other hand, the needs of today are difficult and complicated. Many religious men live amongst boys or the homeless or the sick. They have to wear clothes that allow them to ride scooters, play football, talk to kids, or even serve in a homeless shelter without having to drag around a ten-pound dress.
I see. You are primarily known for your women's line. What are the more elaborate dresses for nuns?
Well, we don't have dresses that are more complicated than others. We strive for simplicity while mantaining rigor. These are women who do not wear the symbols of liturgy, so they wear a simple uniform. But what separates a nun from a stewardess, say? Stewardesses also wear similar uniforms. But nuns have to be able to wear something that covers the body, that reveals them as nuns obviously, even if they wear a shirt and a skirt.
What do you ask of your creatives? Do you have different code words for different lines?
I am the creative here. Without a degree in Slavic studies or a dissertation on religious iconography plus a lifetime of study of liturgy, I don't think I would be able to do what I do today. Today, no creative person who wants to work in fashion goes through this type of study. They study fashion directly. Even if I never studied fashion, keep in mind that Calvin Klein came to me when he decided to design cassocks.
Wow. What are you inspired by?
Mostly by medieval art, even though I have a very contemporary style. Giotto is a great inspiration in the religious field but you have to contextualize him and modernize him.
When the ecclesiastical orders try to modernize their look, what do they tend to ask you for?
Beauty, composure, simplicity, and rigor. Keep in mind that they have to be inexpensive and hardy clothes. I deal with people who have one or two dresses and who don't spend money like common people do.
Bishops take their fashion cues from the Pope. Who do the nuns refer to?
I don't think there is such a system. All they ask for is to be able to walk down the street without feeling uncomfortable. The latest fashion is to be able to reach anyone without wearing cumbersome, heavy frocks. Keep in mind that in places like the States nuns are hard to recognize. They wear lay clothing like pantsuits—and maybe they're Mother Superiors. The interesting style is the Italian one, where the nun still wants to appear the nun, but in a modern way.
Do they care about looking good?
Young nuns do. They care about it— but not excessively. Young girls want to be able to not look like hags or penguins, while maintaining a symbolic beauty, a beauty based on rigor and light.
You also carry underwear. Does it have any particular characteristic?
No, I don’t think it does. We don't sell much of it. Every nun can wear the underwear she wants. She doesn't have to buy it from me.
Why don't nuns wear black anymore?
For the same reason I explained above. Why don't you try walking with eight pounds of black wool on in the summer? The problem is also that it's so much harder these days for nuns to communicate with people. So they try to contextualize their wear, they try to look “nun-ish” without loking scary or intimidating.
Do you have any favorite designers outside the ecclesiastical world?
I am fascinated by designers who do research. I like improbable things! Things that don't look at the marketplace or wearability. I used to love Gigli and Gaultier. But it goes in moments. I profoundly appreciate extreme research.
Michele Ombroso is widely regarded as one of the best ecclesiastical tailors in the world. Before retiring he spent the last years of his career working for Euroclero, the company that allegedly is now dressing Pope Benedict XVI.
How does one become an ecclesiastical tailor?
There are very few schools. It's mostly a question of apprenticeships. I began by working with an ecclesiastical tailor. I grew attached to the work, I continued it, and I have been doing it for 45 years.
During the course of your career did you notice distinctive changes in style?
The traditional ecclesiastical costume changed dramatically after the Second Vatican Council, between 1962 and 1965. Many items were set aside after it because they were deemed inadequate for our times, like the
the great cape with the long train typical of cardinals, and the
, the large, full-length cloak the bishops wear. The last person to wear the
was Cardinal Siri of Genoa. After he died, it was discontinued.
How would you define your style?
I have my own style but it's only a matter of personal choice and taste. It has nothing to do with things like “fashion.”
Some would define the Pope as a fashion icon in your world.
I do not intend to answer any questions about the Holy Father.
Do you think ecclesiastical tailoring feels the influence of lay fashion?
Not at all. It's only a matter of the tailor's personal ability, of being able to inject creativity and style into a standardized canon by taking care of the details, like the finishing stiches, the buttons. It used to be that ecclesiastical wear was nothing more than a series of large shapeles sacks in different cloths. After our work though, it became a matter of lines, of making sure the clergyman is wearing something that fits him with a certain style and elegance.
Are you a believer?
Is it necessary for the job?
to believe. But I do.