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Hat's off to pope's sense of style

Benedict XVI is a sight to behold with designer duds that have surprised Vatican watchers.

January 02, 2006|Daniela Petroff | Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Whether it's Prada and Gucci, or just fancy ecclesiastical tailoring, Pope Benedict XVI is his own man when it comes to dressing.

Just days before Christmas, Benedict showed up at his weekly public audience in St. Peter's Square wearing a fur-trimmed cap that could have passed for a Santa Claus hat.

Earlier in December, he made another fashion statement -- donning a red velvet cape trimmed in ermine for the traditional papal visit to the statue of the Madonna near the Spanish Steps that marks the beginning of Rome's Christmas season.

Coming after gossip about his wearing Gucci sunglasses and bright red Prada loafers, the vintage styles have turned Benedict into something of a fashion celebrity.

"Those red shoes have made quite an impression," said Vatican historian Alberto Melloni.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, had no use for fancy papal attire. Most often he put on the basic white cassock and white gold-trimmed sash. In winter, however, he enjoyed a crimson wool cloak trimmed in gold braid.

The 78-year-old Benedict lacks John Paul's natural charisma, and the trappings of Vatican splendor may be a way to compensate. The bright red Santa cap certainly has a distinguished papal pedigree.

Called a caumaro, the long-forgotten head covering dates to the Middle Ages and figures in many famous papal portraits, including one of Julius II by Raphael. It was last worn by John XXIII, who was pontiff more than 40 years ago.

The velvet cape, called a mozzetta, has also been part of official papal attire but hadn't been seen since John XXIII's successor, Paul VI, in the 1970s. With its regal trimming, it is reminiscent of a time of papal political power some prefer to relegate to history books. But those who know Joseph Ratzinger from his years as head of the Vatican's doctrinal office dismiss any notion of vanity.

"He wouldn't know Gucci from Smoochi," said Marjorie Weeke, a former official at the Vatican's communications office. She recalled Ratzinger's daily walk across St. Peter's Square from his home just outside the Vatican walls to his office, wearing a black beret and black overcoat and carrying a worn leather briefcase.

"He probably donned the cape because it was in the papal closet and would keep him warm on a winter evening," she said of the mozzetta.

A need to keep warm would explain the red cap Benedict wore while recently riding in an open jeep and the white double-breasted overcoat he chose for a visit to a Roman parish.

It would also solve the sweater mystery.

When he came out on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to give his first blessing minutes after his election April 19, an inappropriate black sweater peeked out from under the cuff of his hurriedly donned white cassock. Apparently there was no heating in the Sistine Chapel where the conclave was held, and the new pope might have needed woolen comfort.

Another fashion issue in the news recently: papal hemlines.

During Benedict's first public appearances, his cassock was way above the ankle, revealing white socks and bright red footwear. The hem was soon lowered a few inches, although he still prefers a sporty around-the-ankle look instead of having the cassock draped over the shoes.

The Gucci shades that Benedict was spotted wearing in an open car ride last spring also brought talk.

In his old neighborhood just outside the Vatican, opticians Gladio and Walter Colantoni have been fitting Ratzinger with glasses for almost two decades. They say the designer sunglasses were probably a gift.

"The thing he was most interested in is practicality," said Gladio, adding that the old-fashioned glasses used by Benedict for reading during public appearances speak for themselves.

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