Reading the Language of Papal Clothing

Like many observers of liturgy, I have been trying to make sense of Pope Francis’s choices – especially in the realm of vesture. It has somehow become highly significant to progressives and traditionalists alike that Francis wears ordinary brown or black shoes while his predecessor wore red ones.

Where Benedict XVI often wore elaborate, jewelled mitres, Francis seems to have chosen relatively simple ones, both as cardinal and as pope.

Pope Benedict, from time to time, wore an ermine-trimmed mozzetta and restored the fanon to use; thus far, at least, Pope Francis has worn neither.

Both popes made choices different from those of their predecessors. What were they trying to say? How does the language of papal vesture operate?

In this post I want to use a model derived from the work of Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, to shed some light on this difficult question. To be clear, it is nothing more than a model.  But I have found it helpful in thinking about the way people use symbols.

I will say, from the start, that I am no expert on fashion – liturgical, clerical or lay. I invite comments from those who know more about this topic, whether as clothing mavens or thinkers on social anthropology or keen observers of popes and their habits.

I find Douglas’s work particularly useful for looking at clothing, because her model revolves around the ways in which people accept or reject constraints on their behaviour. And the clothing choices we make each day reflect acceptance or rejection of behavioural constraint. She distinguished two types of social constraint, which she termed grid and group.

Grid, for Douglas, showed how peoples’ actions are limited or constrained by externally observable factors – for example, gender, class, age, military or ecclesiastical rank. A woman, no matter how intelligent or devout or learned, cannot currently act as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. A sergeant in the armed forces must obey commands of a captain, whether or not the sergeant thinks they are right. Blacks in an apartheid regime were forbidden from attending schools reserved for whites. Grid operates in families, as well; in a high-grid family, each member might have a prescribed place at the diner table, perhaps with the father at the head of the table.

She referred to the second constraint as group: the requirement that individuals display loyalty or solidarity to the collective in which they operate. One can formally be a member of a parish simply by showing up to Mass once a year (low group); a monk in a monastery may submit to a lifetime of promoting the interests of the community and subordinating his preferences to those of the whole (high group).

We can put grid and group into a matrix, resulting in four modes of social organisation. All four will be operative in a complex society, but in different degrees.

Douglas called the high group and high grid system a hierarchy. The Catholic Church, taken over many centuries, exemplifies this mode. So does the Army. Leaders in hierarchies often attain their roles less through charisma than through seniority. Douglas herself was a conservative ; the relevance and usefulness of hierarchy was a recurring theme in her work. Readers often reacted negatively to the term, and in some of her later writing she changed the term to a ‘positional’ system.

A second mode is the enclave.  Here, group solidarity is high, but externally visible positioning (grid) is more fluid.  Leadership is about gaining the trust of a smaller group or tribe.  Individual tribes tend to distrust other tribes, and solidarity in one group often arises from rejecting other groups.  Enclave groups tend to be egalitarian and to resist internal structures that would change them into hierarchies.  Small businesses and non-profit organisations tend to organise themselves in this way.  Entrepreneurs tend to form enclaves.

If we relax the constraints both of external positioning and of group solidarity, we have the individualist mode of social organisation.  Here, the group is a group of one – and the individual has to make her or his way based on merit or achievement. Traders in large banks typically operate as individualists, even though they are temporarily part of larger structures.

Finally, an individual operating in a system where grid is powerful but where group is weak can become an isolate, one who must submit to social control but who is a member of no enclave. Cities, according to Douglas, attracted such isolates.

The grid-group system can be used for many purposes – the security services, for example, have used it to model the formation of terrorist groups and the recruitment of vulnerable isolates. Here, however, I want to focus on clothing.

The individualist – in the lower-left corner of the matrix – will wear what he or she chooses; in fact, clothing may be a way of standing out from the crowd.

An enclave member, typically wears clothes that proclaim, above all else, membership of the dominant group or tribe. The thobe or thawb, worn by men in the GCC and Iraq, will tell a knowledgeable observer whether the wearer is from the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc. There may be variance depending on wealth or royal status, but the immediate and strong messages are that the wearer is an Arab, and within that a member of a specific subgroup.

How will someone dress within a hierarchy? Clothing in a true hierarchy will reflect grid, first of all. In the police, in the army, much can depend on someone knowing whether she is speaking with a sergeant, a lieutenant or a captain. Clothing is an easy way of signalling rank.

Cutting across ranks, clothing within a hierarchy signals membership in the group that is the hierarchy itself: uniforms for the police, clericals for priests, white coats or surgical garb for doctors. The following picture, taken from a “career planning” site, shows students how to choose conservative business suits.

Hierarchies can contain groups, of course, and these can be reflected in clothing. Army uniforms signal whether the wearer is a member of the infantry, artillery, corps of engineers, etc. But the dominant messages are, first, that the wearer is in the army; second, that she or he holds a specific rank. Something similar holds for the Church: a Franciscan will have a different habit than a Dominican. On the other hand, within the liturgy the differences in order (subgroup) will be weaker than the differences in rank (bishop, priest, deacon, etc.).

Finally, there are the isolates – those who are operating within a strict hierarchy but are not bound by loyalty to it. Here, I would expect to see eccentricities in clothing but not the complete freedom of the individualist. Perhaps the “urban grunge” style speaks to the city isolate.


What does Douglas’s model imply for liturgical vesture? Once again, we can begin with the individualist. For the most part, an evangelical preacher will wear what he or she wants to – even if the preacher is a member of a denomination, it is unlikely to prescribe clerical dress. You wear what works, especially for television.

Enclavists will dress to signal membership in a group. I defer to those more knowledgeable about Anglican clergy, but my sense is that, especially in the Anglican world, the dominant signal in clerical dress is the subgroup rather than the rank of the wearer:  low church, Anglo-Catholic, moderate, etc. A 2006 photo of the Anglican bishops of Ontario, Canada shows a wide range of styles.

It would be good to know more about Orthodox vesture, too. Syrian, Russian and Greek Orthodox clergy, to name three groups, strike me as having distinctive clothing in each group, but I welcome comments here.

This brings us, at long last, to the clothing choices of popes Benedict and Francis.

Francis’s clothing choices place him firmly within the hierarchy. The vast majority of Jesuits deliberately avoid any distinctive habit; from the start of the order, their Constitutions instructed them to conform to local usage.  Hence, as in the military, he would use his vesture to signal his membership in the clergy, his rank, and perhaps his role in a particular liturgical celebration. And no more. If a mitre is good enough for a papal Mass within a parish, why not reuse it for an inaugural Mass?

What about Pope Benedict XVI? My guess is that he would speak of a hierarchy that extends over time, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”. He was keen to maintain a connection with tradition, and also to bring beautiful things into the liturgy – music, architecture, vestments. As pope, he sought to set an example that many would follow.

And yet it is difficult not to place Benedict in the “isolates” quadrant of Douglas’s matrix. To some extent, the person at the top of any hierarchy is isolated from the rest, and from subgroups within the hierarchy. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, Pope Benedict’s choices for liturgical vesture don’t seem to have been reflected by most cardinals, bishops or priests.

Isolates can be trendsetters. Pope Francis’s choices of clothing would not have seemed distinctive had he followed John Paul II or John Paul I. Time will tell whether Benedict XVI has introduced a durable new “language of clothing” into the Church … or whether Francis’s example will change his predecessor’s discourse.




  1. Vestis virum facit. I remember that phrase from my Latin course.

    Unfortunately Benedict seems to have made the Papacy into a matter of clothes. Now even liberals are making black shoes the essence of Francis.

    I rather liked JP2’s athletic shoes. People didn’t make a big thing about them.

    Maybe at the next conclave they can set up a runway in the Sistine chapel and each cardinal can walk down it in the manner he would if he were Pope.

    1. As a high church anglican i go back and forth. We wear nice VESTMENTS for the glory of God. A ARCHBISHOP in order of corporate American world PATRIARCHATES. I dress my best
      Advent and lent simple miter.
      A pope should vest i n the best!


  2. This is quite a good article and the different categories of people and styles of dress they choose is very interesting. Was there that much change from pope to pope prior to the Council? I think there was a consistency in terms of protocol for the pope in non-liturgical settings, but also liturgical ones much like the military demands so that the individual doesn’t usurp the collective.
    Pope Paul VI began the simplification process of the papal court and never wore again the tiara after his coronation. But he kept other aspects of papal dress. John Paul II wasn’t radically different, although he didn’t like lace, maybe because of his more athletic bent and not artistic bent to put it kindly?

    Benedict looks classy. Could it be his more artistic bent and non athletic bent? But of course he was into reform within continuity with what preceded the council so not only was his attention to style in garments both liturgical and otherwise at play but the continuity thing was in play also.

    Pope Francis doesn’t seem to have an artistic mentality, but I could be wrong. Recently as cardinal he complained that people’s priorities are mixed up and that we spend far to much on pets and cosmetology/cosmetics and fail to care for the poor and needy. Perhaps he sees the fashions of popes, bishops, priests and deacons a part of the wider view of “cosmetology?” So there is symbolism in his reforms of outerwear and individual choices in this regard.

    Most of us knew Cardinal Ratzinger and knew what to expect and people either hated or loved him from the start. Pope Francis is quite different and thus both sides in the Church’s divide are a bit nervous about which black shoe will fall next and will he wear sandals?

  3. I think Douglas’ analysis of the “smooth vs shaggy” binary (from Purity and Danger, if I really correctly) might also be useful here.

  4. Indeed it is relevant, Fritz.

    Douglas uses smooth/shaggy to illustrate “formality”; basically, the vertical dimension of the grid/group matrix. It appears in Natural Symbols, where she is arguing that “there is no natural way of considering the body that does not involve at the same time a social dimension.” (p. 70). She goes on:

    Formality signifies social distance, well defined, public, insulated roles. Informality is appropriate to role confusion, familiarity, intimacy. …

    … The contrast of smooth with shaggy is a member of the general set of symbolic contrasts expressing formal/informal. Shaggy hair, as a form of protest against resented forms of social control, is a current symbol in our own day (1970). There is no lack of pop-sociology pointing a moral which is fully compatible with my general thesis. Take the general run of stockbrokers or academics, stratify the professional sample by age; be careful to distinguish length of hair from unkept hair relate the incidence of shagginess in hair to sartorial indiscipline. Make an assessment under the division smooth/shaggy of other choices, preferred beverages, preferred meeting-places and so on … The prediction is that where the choices for the shaggy option cluster, there is least commitment to the norms of the profession.

    Or compare the professions and trades one against the other. … chartered accountants and the law … are predictably against the shaggy option and for the smooth drink, hair style, or restaurant. Artists and academics are potentially professions of comment and criticism on society: they display a carefully modulated shagginess according to the responsibilities they carry. But how shaggy can they get? What are the limits of shagginess and bodily abandon?

    The section is well worth looking up, as is Natural Symbols as a whole.

  5. Quite the opposite.

    As I see it, Pope Benedict (in Douglas’s terms) was liturgically “shaggier” than Pope Francis. His stance was critical of the norm that he encountered; this critical attitude runs through The Spirit of the Liturgy. To be sure, he appealed to more ancient norms. But his stance was nonetheless critical of what he encountered. There was an element of épater la bourgeoisie in his clothing. As Fr Allan correctly notes above, he had a strong artistic bent. He was a reformer.

    And yet as pope, he could not possibly be a rugged individualist, doing whatever he wanted. The formal system (grid) constrained him.

    Hence my placement of Benedict XVI in the “isolate” quadrant.

    Francis, on the other hand, seems liturgically more like many Jesuits I have encountered, and hence like Douglas’s chartered accountant: not interested in making a statement through the liturgy, just in getting on with it. If anything, liturgically banal rather than bold and artistic. And therefore (in this particular framework) more “smooth” than his predecessor.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
        I can see why “banal rather than bold and artistic” might make some people nervous. On the other hand, consider the virtues of plainness and consistency. A loaf of homemade bread, not elaborated but carefully made, may not be bold or artistic, but it can be a beautiful thing.

        Isn’t it a good thing that you can walk into a Mass, anywhere in the world, and be able to worship? A good thing not to have to worry about the celebrant’s liturgical quirks? A good thing to set the bold and artistic aside? A good thing that the Mass doesn’t change at the whim of the celebrant, but is continuous in space and time? Hmmm … we could call this virtue “continuity”. I like the sound of that.

        Jane Grigson, the English historian and writer, said “We have more than enough masterpieces; what we need is a better standard of ordinariness.” She was talking about food and cooking, but she could equally well been referring to liturgy.

  6. Before Pope Paul VI began to experiment with the different looks in the late 1960s in an effort to project a more modern image of the papacy, the pope’s wardrobe and liturgical vesture were very much standardized and had been for hundreds of years. Sartorially, the pope’s look was essentially that of a bishop who was also a prince. That is after all, what the pope was (and still is, for that matter). Paul was a simplifier, however, and desired that the entire range of clergy, including the pope, reform the liturgical look of the Church so that it seemed less anachronistic and more as if the Church were keeping apace with the age. Such efforts were already underway in the Church, of course, but had not yet touched the papacy. Once the papacy embraced this simplification, it became easier for the rest of the clergy to follow suit. Alas, many went too far.

    Paul’s simplification of the papal look maintained many of the traditional elements of the papal costume, but in some cases they became less classically Roman in appearance and more contemporary. Over his mozzetta he wore stoles of contemprary design. His pectoral cross and rings were also of modern conception. Some liturgical items, such as the tiara, the gauntlets, the buskins, the tunic, and the pontifical sandals, were abandoned by Paul (as they were by other bishops). The tiara was put in mothballs, and so was the camauro. Paul gained a pastoral staff, like other bishops. John Paul II was the last to be seen in the papal choir cassock made entirely of watered-silk, but that was foisted upon him and he never wore it again. John Paul was the first pope in hundreds of years to abandon the papal slippers in favor of brown loafers, even when indoors. By the end of John Paul’s pontificate, a new standard for the papal look had been established, one which minimized (or altogether disregarded) the princely aspect of the papacy, putting the emphasis, instead, on his role as shepherd.

    Benedict XVI returned the red shoes but his liturgical look, at the…

  7. Benedict XVI returned the red shoes but his liturgical look, at the beginning, was very avant-garde. His miters were very short (and usually horrifically ugly), his vestments were very ample, and his pallium was completely radical. Then, quite suddenly, midway through his pontificate, there was a change. He began to adopt all different sorts of looks, many of them distinctly pre-Conciliar, some of them even quite medieval. By the last few years of Benedict’s reign, the papal look was all over the place. There was a schizophrenia about it. One day he would look like John Paul II, the next day Pius XII, the next day Innocent III. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to it. The ermine-trimmed mozzettas came back. The camauro reappeared briefly, but was quickly put back in mothballs again. The papal staff was exchanged for the papal ferula, then that was replaced by something else. The pallium was given to a dead pope, and a smaller one was made. It really was like a carnival, to be honest.

    Now along comes Francis, who seems to have no interest in playing around with his look. I get the impression he wants neither to modernize nor to revert back to a former day. It seems to me that he just wants simplicity, consistency, and to be comfortable in his own shoes. Literally.

  8. Excellent! Thank you, Jonathan.

    While pontiff emeritus Benedict XVI is a liturgical isolate with respect to papal reigns of the postconciliar era, he is still the “shadow liturgical leader” of the enclave EF/ROTR movement. Benedict might be the “dowager” with no governance, but he still inspires the traditionalist enclave through the memory of his pontificate’s liturgical program.

    Last night I head an EF sung Mass for St. Joseph’s Day. The young pastor was certainly a disciple of Pope Benedict’s liturgical renaissance (or, depending on persuasion, partial deprecation of the postconciliar liturgical movement.) From my perspective, the emphasis on baroque-style vestments, for example, has not dimmed in many sectors of traditionalism after the election of Pope Francis. Traditionalists will for the most part continue along the pontiff emeritus Benedict’s inspiration, regardless of Pope Francis’s own liturgical style.

    From my estimation, the election of Pope Francis will actually solidify and not scatter the EF/ROTR enclave. The traditionally-oriented clergy I have had opportunity to hear or speak to have pledged loyalty to Pope Francis and preach positively on his great compassion. At the same time, I suspect that the traditional community will experience a greater solidarity now that their patron no longer sits on the throne.

    Do not underestimate the tenacity of traditionalists: perceived persecution, for better or worse, merely strengthens enclave identity.

  9. Jordan, I don’t disagree with you, but enclave is not hierarchy. The traditionalist position is consequently not very traditional, given the Catholic Church’s commitment to hierarchy. I think that is good in many ways. It fits better with many of the reforms of VII. But it makes it harder to call them traditionalists.

  10. To Jordan’s and Jim’s points above — the trad movement could well become a more oppositional enclave; this is exactly what happened with the Lefebvrists, with unfortunate results. But it would be disastrous if a living pope-emeritus were to become a symbol of opposition to the current pope. I cannot imagine that Benedict XVI would allow that. He would break his self-imposed silence first.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #13:

      Pope Francis would be very foolish to abrogate Summorum pontificum for many reasons other than the desire to not dishonor an emeritus pope. I trust Pope Francis will not do so because he does not want to create an hostile enclave which will set up a perpetual state of verbal warfare. Pope Francis has extensive experience with the SSPX by virtue of their significant presence in Buenos Aires. He probably understands the political stakes of traditionalism (and in particular trad schismatics) better than most traditionalists, licit or not.

      I understand that many PTB readers decry the way in which SP has disrupted church unity, but the alternatives are even messier. SP is an effective middle-ground holding pattern for licit Roman traditionalism. With SP, the pope maintains total control of the legislation of licit traditionalism. Traditionalism remains a enclave, and not a hierarchy. The other two options are schism (which is a headache for ordinaries such as a once archbishop of Buenos Aires) or scattered refugees who make a bishop’s life hellish (the state of affairs before SP, at least where I grew up.)

      In the relatively recent future, Roman traditionalism will move from “enclave” to “hierarchy”, even one which is a subset of the larger Roman hierarchy. I am convinced that a time will come when licit Roman traditionalism will be given a semi-autonomous government, akin somewhat to 2.5 on your scale if I remember correctly. Perhaps the Anglican ordinariate is a test-run of a larger ordinariate for traditionalists. The cues traditionalists have maintained and even amplified after SP suggest that the seeds of juridical semi-autonomy have already been sown. The emphasis on distinctive vestments, habit, and even decoration suggest that some licit traditionalists view themselves as a separate rite, even if the EF is not separate in reality.

  11. “It would be good to know more about Orthodox vesture, too. Syrian, Russian and Greek Orthodox clergy, to name three groups, strike me as having distinctive clothing in each group, but I welcome comments here.”

    The vesture of the Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches is very beautiful and very static; it doesn’t change from region to region or from age to age. It is today as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

    There is no idea in the East of liturgical vesture accomodating itself to passing fashions or cultural trends. Eastern clergy do not think in terms of updating. They do, however, think in terms of restoring Eastern elements, patterns, or practices that became Westernized, either in the case of Eastern Catholic Churches that fell victim to Latinization, or Orthodox Churches on this side of the Atlantic that fell victim to Americanization. These days, both in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the West, all traces of Latinization or Westernization (organs, kneelers, Stations of the Cross, even pews in some cases, &c) are being more and more forsaken and Eastern traditions that were lost are being restored. To take clerical wear as an example, when Roman Catholics see a priest in cassock as opposed to a black suit and collar, it is often taken as a sign that he is more conservative. When you see an Eastern priest who wears the cassock, however, it is generally a sign that he is more attuned to Eastern traditions than to Western. Let’s face it, there simply aren’t any liberal clergymen in the Eastern Churches; they are all “conservative”. They are all “traditional”.

    To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) liturgical vestments is that they do not follow the liturgical colors of the West. Byzantine clergy, in fact, will tell you that there are only two liturgical colors: bright and dark.

  12. Benedict XVI returned the red shoes but his liturgical look, at the beginning, was very avant-garde. His miters were very short (and usually horrifically ugly), his vestments were very ample, and his pallium was completely radical. Then, quite suddenly, midway through his pontificate, there was a change. He began to adopt all different sorts of looks, many of them distinctly pre-Conciliar, some of them even quite medieval.

    Was all this when the MCs changed? Benedict kept the JP2 MC for a while.

    Are we really talking about a Pope’s preferences or the MCs preferences? It might have been a little bit of both. Somewhere I read that the MC actually sets out several sets of vestments and the Pope chooses among them. Maybe the new MC just liked vestments and spent a lot of time in the vestment store rooms? Benedict once remarked that the reason he wore one item was that he was cold, it kept him warm.

    Remember that B16 never celebrated an EF Mass as Pope. It has always seemed to me that proponents of the EF and the Reform of the Reform have read too much into his actions. Now people are beginning to read too much into Francis actions.

  13. With SP, the pope maintains total control of the legislation of licit traditionalism. Traditionalism remains a enclave, and not a hierarchy. Perhaps the Anglican Ordinariate is a test-run of a larger Ordinariate for traditionalists.

    I find it very interesting that B16 placed both the EF and the Ordinariates under the control of the CDF. This both insulates them from the rest of Church (regulation of liturgy, appointment of leaders) but also brings them under stronger Papal control by means of the department of the Papacy that is likely to be the most conservative.

    On the one hand, this is a recipe for long term survival. The bishops and even a hostile Pope are not likely to dismantle them. On the other hand, this also limits their ability to “aggressively evangelize” the rest of the Church. Leaders of both movements would be wise to settle in for a program of long term slow but steady growth and avoid participation in “liturgy wars.” The movement themselves may not be dismantled but a Pope will be able to change their leadership very easily.

  14. Jonathan Day : But it would be disastrous if a living pope-emeritus were to become a symbol of opposition to the current pope. I cannot imagine that Benedict XVI would allow that. He would break his self-imposed silence first.

    Surely it would be exceedingly unfortunate — even, to use your word, disastrous — for a former pope (for that’s what he really is) to insert himself into any controversy, even (possibly *especially*) in defense of his successor.

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