Clothed By Christ?

Dress To Impress


When asked about the origin of the Pontiff’s red slippers, the Vatican replied that Benedict XVI was clothed by Christ.[i] This risible retort seemed to lay bare an age-old tension between High Church and High Fashion. Throughout history, ostentatious expression through dress has been inveighed as an indicator of moral and spiritual fragility. Herodotus, who lived between 484 and 424 BC, considered Egyptian attitudes to dress and religious ceremony fussy and peculiar.[ii] Baldesar Castiglione, musing on the perfect courtier in 1528, thought the French overdressed and the Germans dour. Restraint in dress was preferable to seeming foppish, although elegance should not be sacrificed:

I should like the clothes our courtier wears to reflect the sobriety of the Spanish, since external appearances often bear witness to what is within.[iii]

The renunciation of material possessions has long been conveyed through materiality and clothing is no exception. Ascetic attire was widely thought to reflect moral probity. The experience of the Seventh Crusade engendered a pronounced humility in (St) Louis IX of France (1226-1270) that extended to food and dress. After 1254, the king never wore any garment trimmed with vair or gray. Occasionally, he wore a white lambskin surcoat as a minor luxury.[iv] England’s martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (1162-1170), demonstrated his religious devotion in a similar manner. Prone to flamboyance in his youth, Becket dressed in sombre shades and less opulent garments after his elevation to the Canterbury see.[v] Like Louis IX, he rejected costly furs and wore a goat’s hair shirt next to his skin.[vi] When it was exposed after his murder, the shirt supposedly contained living lice and worms.[vii] In the twentieth century, the simple attire of Mahatma Gandhi conveyed a similar, if less repulsive, point.

Man's shirt

The Wicked World Of Fashion

As notions about social station and sartorial display crystallised, they were protected through sumptuary legislation. Notoriously difficult to enforce, sumptuary laws may have proved more harmful than good by creating division through exclusivity. The belief that a person’s external appearance accurately reflected their internal wellbeing had a decisive, and deadly, consequence for European rulers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Within seventeenth-century England, Protestant partisans argued that the feathers, ribbons, bows and coiffured beards of King Charles I and his cavaliers were manifestations of the kingdom’s political and religious corruption and the increasing influx of continental culture, chiefly that of Catholic France.[viii] To be a dedicated follower of fashion was to focus on a corruptible world of materialism rather than look aloft to the incorruptible kingdom of heaven. During the eighteenth century, distinctive raiment among men was increasingly considered effete and fuelled suspicions of homosexuality. Today, it is commonly assumed that men involved with the clothing industry are gay, although recent resignations probably make this aphorism equally applicable to male members of the Catholic Church.[ix] Perennial concerns about child labour, sexual exploitation and negative body image would suggest the fashion industry and Church have little common ground. The fall of John Galliano, which sparked debates asking ‘Is there a moral vacuum at the heart of fashion?’, revealed the rift between matters of couture and conscience.[x] Galliano was sacked from Dior in 2011 following an anti-Semitic rant in a Parisian bar. He caused further consternation earlier this year when he was photographed in ‘fashionable’ garb that ironically, and seemingly cruelly, resembled the traditional dress of Hasidic Jews.[xi]


Church Couture

But the denunciation of distinctive dress by moralists and the Church is really a case of protesting too much. Within the Catholic hierarchy, members of the episcopacy have always designated their singular status through elaborately wrought vestments. Last year, The Independent revealed that a cardinal’s red garments from the papal tailor Gammarelli cost in the region of £1,000. This includes the requisite red socks at £12.[xii] Expensive it may be, but modern religious raiment is far more frugal than that of the medieval period. Between 1284 and 1285, the ecclesiastic Bogo de Clare, a younger son of the Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, spent 2s. 6d. to have a hood (caputiam) furred.[xiii] In today’s prices, this would be equivalent to £63.[xiv] During the same year, Bogo’s servants spent a total of £9 8s. 6d. acquiring fur for their lord, a sum that would be roughly equivalent to £4,700 today.[xv] Bogo’s expenditure on clothing is particularly impressive because he was only a minor figure within the English church, even if he did come from a powerful and wealthy family. His raiment would not have been as elaborate, or expensive, as that worn by members of the episcopacy. Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1193 and 1205, was buried in Eastern Mediterranean silks that would have cost far more.[xvi]


If the pontificate of Benedict XVI is remembered at all in years to come, it will probably be due to its brevity and the Pontiff’s penchant for sartorial flair. Benedict XVI struggled to grapple with longstanding problems of Church corruption – leading to rumours that he was homosexual[xvii] – but he was assiduous in reviving papal garments and dress accessories. In 2007, his sartorial efforts were recognised by (US) Esquire, who featured him in their Best Dressed list as ‘Accessorizer of the Year’.[xviii] The magazine chose well. Benedict XVI was the first pope since 1963 to wear a Camauro, a red fur-trimmed woollen cap, and was often seen sporting a white baseball cap, a perfect match for his favoured Serengeti sunglasses.[xix]


Sacral Style

The richness of clerical raiment means religious motifs are increasingly conspicuous on the catwalk. In 2007, Versace showed their ‘clergyman’ collection, which offered a secular synthesis of modern clerical attire. This year, Dolce & Gabbana and Alexander McQueen have taken design cues from religious history. Where Stefano and Domenico have looked East to the Orthodox Church and incorporated the dark hues and golds most commonly found in Byzantine mosaics, Sarah Burton has looked West to the sixteenth-century Church and included lighter colours and bejewelled embroidery that were popular during the Renaissance. Vivienne Westwood’s Autumn/Winter collection, inspired by a medieval book of illuminated manuscripts, inevitably includes religious references, albeit fleetingly.[xx]



This theological fashion trend may have been triggered by the economic ennui, as frightened and confused consumers question their societal roles and the true value of material possessions. It is more likely, however, that this burgeoning partnership, which has been long in the making, is a reflection of the natural affinity between High Church and High Fashion. Society’s outlook is becoming ever more secular, but our life cycles and long holidays are still dictated by a religious calendar. It will be a long time before another Pontiff as stylish as Benedict XVI sits on St Peter’s throne, but the occurrence of religious symbols in modern dress is likely to be a long-running theme in catwalk collections.


[i] H. Rochell, ‘Let the Devil wear Prada – the man in the Vatican was dressed by Christ’, The Times 11 February, 2013), 6-7.

[ii] Herodotus, The Histories, tr. G. Rawlinson (London, 1997), Bk II, Chp. 35-36, 139-40.

[iii] B.Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1967), 135.

[iv] J. le Goff, Saint Louis (Paris, 1996), 631.

[v] F. Barlow, Thomas Becket (London, 1986), 25, 76-77.

[vi] Ibid., 75, 128.

[vii] Ibid., 250.

[viii] D. Kutcha, The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550-1850 (Berkeley, 2002), 51-76.

[ix] M. Joseph Gross, ‘The Vatican’s Secret Life’, Vanity Fair (December, 2013), 113-20.

[x] K. Flett & M. O’Riordan, ‘Is there a moral vacuum at the heart of fashion?’ The Observer: The New Review (10 February, 2013), 4.

[xi] L. Craik, ‘Anger over Gallianos Jewish apparel’, The Times (14 February, 2013), 15; A. Jones, ‘You can’t be trendy and racist’, The Independent (16 February, 2013), 42.

[xii] M. Day, ‘Vatican shoppers buck recession’, The Independent (26 November, 2012), 19.

[xiii] M.S. Giuseppi, ‘The Wardrobe and Household Accounts of Bogo de Clare, A.D. 1284-6’, Archaeologia, lxx (1920), 24.

[xiv] It is notoriously difficult to convert old prices into modern, but the exercise is interesting, if not fully accurate. See, Accessed: 9 November 2013.

[xv] ‘Bogo de Clare’, 31.

[xvi] N. Stratford, P. Tudor-Craig & A.M. Muthesius, ‘Archbishop Hubert Walter’s Tomb and its Furnishings’, Medieval Art & Architecture at Canterbury before 1220 (Leeds, 1982), 80-85; B.L. Wild, ‘Walter, Hubert’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450 (Leiden, 2012), 616-17.

[xvii] ‘The Vatican’s Secret Life’, 116.

[xviii] Best Dressed Men in America: The Awards’. (20 August, 2007). Accessed: 5 November 2013.

[xix] ‘Let the Devil wear Prada’, 7; J. Bone, ‘The fast-track new Pope’, The Times (1 February, 2013), 23.

[xx] B.L. Wild, ‘Draped in the past’, History Today (September, 2013), 4-5.

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