Since his election to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has garnered international headlines for his environmental activism. His decision to adopt Francis as his papal name communicated to the public how his papacy would be advocating the environmental ethics associated with his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi. As part of his environmental activism and commitment to centring the socioeconomic injustices faced by the poor in public messages, Pope Francis deliberately incorporates modest, rather bare vestments into his papal uniform. He has emerged as a men’s fashion icon primarily due to his humble institutional uniform and public critiques of the wasteful consumerism commonly associated with contemporary consumer culture and the fashion industry.
Pope Francis’s individualised approach to the papal uniform is not unique to his papacy. His selection of vestments and regalia is situated within a larger visual history of pontiffs selecting their religious uniform to brand and circulate their papal persona in public discourse and popular culture, evident through the actions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. As the leader of the Catholic Church, the pontiff represents the institution’s brand identity. Following Naomi Klein’s analysis of institutional branding, the characteristics associated with a pontiff’s public image provide an opportunity for the Catholic Church to revitalise its image for global audiences (Klein “How Corporate”). Through a textual analysis of select media coverage of pontiffs and their approach to the papal uniform, this article discusses how Pope Francis’s religious uniform functions as a mechanism to extend the symbolic institutional power of the Catholic Church as a brand in popular culture by negotiating ideas of austerity.
The Institutional Politics of the Uniform as a Form of Communication
Fashion and clothing are important modes of communication that enable an individual to nonverbally signal their identity and belonging to various social groups, causes, and institutions (Barnard; Coghlan; Craik). An understudied but widespread element of everyday life, the uniform is a powerful signifier of the ideological and discursive formations reproduced by social institutions (Craik). Uniforms played not only an essential role for social organisation within modernity, but for Jane Tynan and Lisa Godson their materiality has significantly shaped the imagery of visual culture (8). Scholars including Jennifer Craik, William Keenan, and Q. Colville have addressed how uniforms negotiate gendered politics due to the prevalence of such garments within institutional spheres such as the military, healthcare, and religion. Influenced by Foucault’s view of the uniform as a mechanism to brand the body as under the power, authority, and control of the institution, Tynan and Godson have extended this argument to identify the relationship between uniforms, social structures, and violent practices of colonisation and imperial dominance (10-15).
The institutional power of the uniform also extends to the papacy and the Catholic Church. In her historical analysis of papal regalia, Maureen C. Miller argues that during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the uniform may not have been viewed by large audiences, but popes were beginning to understand how their vestments were a powerful communicative tool shaping their public image. Combined with the increasing theatrically of the pontiff, Miller argues that “performative uses of clothing were significant not for the complexity of the messages they conveyed but for their strategic aim to make simple points memorably and to promote their diffusion” (293). Her analysis underscores how the papal uniform – and the individual way in which different pontiffs have approached donning vestments – represents a significant visual communicative history which continues to intensify in contemporary media culture.
In a retrospective discussing papal regalia, Vanity Fair alluded to this extensive history. Evoking the theatricality discussed by Miller, Vanity Fair compared previous popes’ uniform choices to rap artists and the individuality of Sex and the City characters, noting that the Catholic Church’s leaders “have historically exhibited a daring sense of style over their 2,000 years in the high office” (Miller). Following Miller’s argument, Pope Francis’s approach to his papal uniform is purposefully designed to memorably communicative his environmental message, a core aspect of his brand identity. The message of his simple approach to the papal uniform cannot be adequately addressed without placing it within the sartorial choices of his predecessors, especially Pope Benedict XVI and his preference for communicating authority and power through opulence.
Approaches to the Papal Uniform since the 1960s
Fashion has always played a significant role in communicating the institutional power and brand identity of the Catholic Church. Beginning in the mid-1960s with the creation of the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul VI, the vestments comprising the papal uniform became the subject of increased media attention. Pope Paul VI’s move towards eliminating the more ostentatious robes and accessories associated with the papacy included his “dramatic gesture” to auction a papal tiara – which The New York Times estimated was worth roughly $80,000 in 1964 – with proceeds donated to charities and organisations assisting the poor (“Pope Paul Donates His Jeweled Tiara to Poor of World”).
In a sociohistorical analysis of papal fashion, The Guardian argued that the decision by Pope Paul VI to auction the accessories of the papal uniform that were intended to mediate the Catholic Church’s institutional power represented his mandate to appear “more in touch with the people” (Conway). Pope Paul VI’s understanding of the communicative power of the papal uniform to symbolise the institutional values of the Catholic Church’s brand identity draws parallels to Pope Francis. The strategic curation of papal vestments and accessories demonstrates that the role of institutional uniforms for practices of brand and image management is not unique to the contemporary cultural moment.
Although Pope John Paul II was known to enjoy a fondness for Rolex watches (which Teen Vogue cites as an iconic papal fashion moment), the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI coincided with a drastic resurgence in the grandiose garments neglected by his predecessors (Webster). With a preference for pre-Vatican II luxurious self, velvet, and fur pieces like the cape-style mozzetta, The Guardian contends that Pope Benedict XVI’s papal uniform represented a shift away from the communal emphasis of Pope Paul VI towards reviving the Catholic Church’s hegemonic heritage and tradition within visual culture. The Guardian argues that “at a time of global economic uncertainty, and with the Church struggling to retain its flock in an increasingly secularised world, reinforcing tradition and underlining the continuity of ritual was a bold and, Benedict felt, necessary direction” (Conway). The newspaper situates Pope Benedict XVI’s sartorial preference for his papal uniform within the larger trend of couture houses like Alexander McQueen and Chanel revisiting their archives.
Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy oversaw the Catholic Church experiencing a significant decline in global authority and symbolic power due to the continued fallout from numerous scandals, including the longstanding history of sexual abuse allegations and charges of embezzlement at the Institute for the Works of Religion, the official bank of the Vatican. Combined with his highly conservative doctrinal approach and unwillingness to adapt the church’s position on key human rights and social justice issues, including LGBQT+ acceptance within the institution, Pope Benedict XVI’s conspicuous taste and approach to the papal uniform was symbolic of his leadership. His regalia and vestments mediated an undesirable brand identity as a pontiff largely disconnected from the realities of his public.
Pope Benedict was also reported by the press to enjoy conspicuous designer accessories, in particular his Gucci sunglasses and, most notably, allegedly preferred to wear Prada for his papal shoes. In line with his symbolic approach to the papacy, Benedict revived the wearing of red shoes by the pope (with red a signifier of martyrs’ blood). Esquire labelled Pope Benedict XVI as their 2007 “Accessorizer of the Year”, primarily for incorporating a signature “ornate” footwear into his institutional religious uniform (“Best Dressed Men in America”). Conversely, Pope John Paul II’s papacy signified a shift away from this aspect of the papal uniform, preferring burgundy over a blood red colouring.
The Vatican subsequently corrected that Pope Benedict XVI’s red papal shoes were not Prada but rather commissioned specifically for him by Italian cobblers (Fetters Maloy). However, the idea that Benedict incorporated Prada shoes into the institutional papal uniform had become repeated by numerous cultural intermediaries ranging from the Associated Press to Women’s Wear Daily,to the extent that it is now entrenched into the popular imaginary. Upon his retirement in 2013, The Cut argued Pope Benedict would be primarily remembered for the “pair of bright red Prada loafers that he almost always wore beneath his robes” (Cowles). When Pope Francis arrived in Washington, D.C. for his 2015 visit to the United States, USA Today celebrated the event with the brazen headline, “Pope Francis arrives and he’s not the ‘Prada Pope’” (Puente). Reflecting upon his divisive legacy after his death in December 2022, The Daily Beast continued circulating this narrative, writing that when Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy, he donned “Prada slippers and stumbled his way through a papacy fraught with controversy” (Latza Nadeau). It is within this context of Pope Benedict’s hegemonically ornate approach to the papal uniform that Pope Francis’s modest and humble styling of his vestments registered with the public as a mechanism for branding his public image.
The Role of the Uniform for Pope Francis’s Brand Identity
For his public introduction after the 2013 papal conclave to those pilgrims gathered in St. Peters Square, Pope Francis shaped the tone, narrative, and messaging of his papacy through his unique and calculated approach to the Church’s institutional uniform. His decision to appear on the balcony wearing a basic white cassock with an unadorned crucifix around his neck exemplifies Tynan and Godson’s argument that uniforms can act as a form of “self-preservation” within the context of institutional power (18). Pope Francis is not only the pontiff, but his image and persona work to maintain the institutional brand identity of the Catholic Church (Moir). His selection and wearing of a cassock demonstrate that Pope Francis is aware of how his image and persona will be critiqued by the public and cultural intermediaries.
Pope Francis’s first encyclical published in 2015, Laudato Si’, argues that the environmental crisis (which he blames on wasteful consumerism) disproportionally impacts on the planet’s most socioeconomically marginalised communities. The correlation of climate change with the injustices faced by the poor is highlighted by scholars including Bruno Latour and Anne F. MacLennan for exemplifying Pope Francis’s radical approach prioritising empathy to the papacy. Pope Francis’s uniform performs his environmental activism by signifying how discourses of sustainability and ethical consumption are core social justice issues for the Church. Through rejecting the opulent vestments for a modest white cassock and wearing sandals rather than red shoes, sartorial decisions were strategically made to communicate his symbolic approach to the papacy through the power of the uniform.
His sartorial approach to the papal regalia comprising his religious uniform ignited extensive public conversations concerning how Pope Francis’s image – humble, modest, advocating for the poor, environmental activist – would improve the Catholic Church’s brand identity amidst numerous scandals. Fashion critic Vanessa Friedman’s discussion of Pope Francis is a potent example of the type of public commentary from cultural intermediaries that framed the symbolic power of his papal uniform for the Church’s re-branding efforts:
Pope Francis hasn’t really had a chance to do anything in terms of influencing doctrine – except appear in moments broadcast to millions … they can all make their own assumption based on how he looks. There was a very clear rationale behind his decision to eschew the more fancy, ermine-trimmed red and purple robes of Pope Benedict in favour of plain white vestments; to swap the fold cross for an iron version. The choices telegraphed the importance of humility; the importance of recognizing and working with the poor; and the need, in a time of austerity, to acknowledge the suffering and deprivations of others. It was a discreet but unmistakable announcement of a new agenda, using the tools most immediately and least aggressively available. (“Pope and Circumstance”)
Friedman’s analysis is particularly noteworthy because she underlines how the papal uniform has always been subject to personal interpretation based upon the brand identity of the pontiff. More significantly, she connects Pope Francis’s selection of papal regalia to his environmental politics and social justice activism. The uniform possesses greater symbolic power than Pope Francis’s actions. His uniform emphasises the frames, narratives, and discursive schemas grounding his brand identity that is then circulated by cultural intermediaries as in the example of Friedman’s analysis.
In a feature detailing the impact of Pope Francis’s papacy on the fashion industry, The New York Times highlighted the cultural impact of the pontiff’s religious uniform. Italian fashion designer Silvia Venturini Fendi is cited by The New York Times as recognising the rise of sustainability in high fashion, making a direct association to Pope Francis’s criticism of wasteful consumerism: “we have a new pope going back to real Christianity, which lately was far from the church … . People are looking for meaning, and the real meaning of fashion is as a tool to express yourself. Sometimes fashion hides your language, but we look for meaning in materials and fabrics to allow true personality to come out” (Menkes). Esquire named Pope Francis their “Best Dressed Man of 2013”, an honour bestowed upon the pontiff for how his sartorial approach to the papal uniform signified the Catholic Church’s rebranding efforts. Justifying their selection over other candidates like Bradley Cooper and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Esquire cites New York University professor Ann Pellegrini, who situates Pope Francis’s papal uniform as a powerful signifier of his brand identity: “the humility of his garments offers a way to visibly display his theological and material concerns for the poor. This Holy Roman emperor really does have new clothes” (Berlinger). Fendi and Esquire’s positioning of Pope Francis’s papal regalia as an institutional yet personal communicative tool underscores how his religious uniform performs a critical function to reshape the public narratives and discourses shaping judgements on the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis’s celebrity status and the deliberate rejection of lavish vestments helped initiate a wider discourse on the politics of the papal uniform in media and popular culture. In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute debuted their annual fashion exhibit Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, showcasing both the influence of Catholicism for numerous designers (such as Alexander McQueen and Versace) as well as the visual politics of the Church’s institutional uniform (Bolton). The debut of Heavenly Bodies was the focus of the 2018 Costume Institute Gala, the prestigious – and highly exclusionary – annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rihanna attended wearing a papal-inspired Margiela bejewelled minidress with a matching jacket and mitre (Syme). Proclaimed as “Pope Rihanna” by Twitter users, her choice of embodying an opulent imagination of the papal uniform received extensive attention by the press and the public on social media (“The Most Hilarious Twitter Reactions to Rihanna’s Met Gala Look”).
Teen Vogue argued that Rihanna’s thematic outfit functioned as a form of activism by highlighting the gender discrimination within the organisational structure of the Catholic Church (Papisova). Despite advocating against social injustices, Pope Francis’s continued denial of women becoming priests remains one of the major criticisms of his papacy. Although Pope Francis has employed his papal vestments and regalia to perform a social justice-oriented mandate for his papacy, there are limits to the advocacy of his institutional uniform which must balance and negotiate the complex politics of the Catholic Church.
Papal vestments and regalia play an important communicative role in visual culture. Prior to 2018’s Met Gala, Vox argued that “instead of watching celebrities at the MET Gala Monday night, pay attention to what the pope wears everyday” (Burton). Vox highlights the symbolic power of the pontiff as an institutional figure to negotiate various trends and social shifts circulating in public discourse. Heavenly Bodies and the larger discussions by cultural intermediaries analysing papal fashion exemplifies how the papal uniform contributes to the symbolic power of the Catholic Church in public discourse and media culture.
The papal vestments comprising the pontiff’s institutional uniform is a critical element of Pope Francis’s public persona, and his sartorial tactics signify a larger visual history of institutional branding through fashion. Pope Francis is an intriguing example of a celebrated public figure utilising the iconicity of his institutional uniform to mediate ideas about sustainability, environmental ethics, austerity, and consumption. However, cultural intermediaries focussing on the symbolism of such regalia shift attentions away from the Catholic Church’s institutional power and reduce opportunities to critique Pope Francis on key social justice issues, such as the treatment of women, the role of the Church in colonisation, and continued sexual abuse allegations.
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