Sacred Sartorialism: The Sacrosanct Evolution of Papal Styles

History has often presented the various popes of the Catholic Church on how they reigned as pontiffs of the Vatican, but there is one facet of being a pope that might raise interest to the more style-conscious individual, and that is the ever-changing trend of papal fashion.

In this handy visual guide, we take a look at five Catholic popes from the past up to the present, and see how papal style has evolved; taking into consideration the cultural trends of the time that each pope ruled over, as well as their personalities.

Looking at various archive photographs and portraits of Pope John XXIII, you would think he was a beardless version of Santa Claus. That’s because he is recognized for being the very last pontiff in history to don a special type of head covering known as a “caumaro”, which is essentially a short version of a Santa hat crafted out of red velvet and trimmed with white fur at the base.

A common accessory that most high-ranking church leaders like popes often wield is a ceremonial staff known as a “crosier”, which symbolized their status within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. So when Pope Paul VI took over the Vatican in 1963, he decided that he wasn’t just going to carry around any old, common crosier—he had one custom-made by no less than a Neapolitan sculptor. The crosier was made out of silver and fashioned into the shape of a cross.

One of the longest-reigning popes in Catholic history, who is close to being canonized as a Saint also happened to have a sense of style during his years as an active pontiff. Pope John Paul II was famously gifted a pair of blue-tinted sunglasses by iconic musician Bono of the band U2, and was known to favor a large wool cloak in bright crimson which allowed young children who met the pope to play hide and seek in its red folds.

Recently retired Pope Benedict XVI is perhaps considered by most media critics as the Vatican’s equivalent of a fashionista, as the former head of the Catholic Church was known to favor grand papal regalia for his public appearances. But none perhaps captured much attention than his signature red leather shoes, which were initially rumored to be custom-made Pradaloafers, until official reports surfaced upon his retirement that Pope Benedict’s eye-catching red shoes were, in fact, created by an unnamed shoemaker whose atelier is located close to the Vatican.

Where his predecessors opted for visual grandeur in their appearance, newly elected Pope Francis I is something of a fashion rebel by going towards the opposite direction. He famously shunned the more opulent fashions of a typical papal wardrobe and has opted for a more modest approach to his image—such as choosing to wear classic black leather shoes and the simplest Papal ring—which is consistent with his humble beginnings as a priest in Argentina. Despite Pope Francis’ unconventionally minimalist sense of style, he has been named by Esquire Magazine as the “Best Dressed Man of 2013”.

Back to blog