Pope Benedict XVI Italy’s new fashion celebrity

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 stocking cap that could easily have passed for a Santa Claus hat.

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

Coming on the heels of gossip about Gucci shades 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.

Pope Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, a handsome and vigorous man when he became pope at 58, 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 did seem to enjoy a crimson wool cloak trimmed in gold braiding, at times allowing children to play hide and seek in its deep folds.

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 back 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 had last been worn by 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 before he became pope in April dismiss any notion of vanity in his dressing habits.

"He wouldn't know Gucci from Smoochi," said Marjorie Weeke, a former official at the Vatican's Social 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, 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." Keeping warm might indeed be a deciding factor in Benedict's sartorial choices. It would explain the red cap he wore Wednesday while riding in an open jeep, and the long, white, double-breasted overcoat he chose for a recent 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 on 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 been in need of some woolen comfort. Another fashion issue in the news recently: papal hemlines.

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

Vatican watchers say the hemline mishap may have cost the Gammarelli tailoring family their position as the pope's official clothier, after two centuries in the job. The traditional announcement of their appointment after a new papal election has not come.

One tailor at the top of the list of possible successors is Raniero Mancinelli, whose tiny shop is in the pope's old neighborhood just outside the Vatican. Asked whether he now makes outfits for Benedict, Mancinelli smiled cryptically and answered: "It is possible." It is Vatican policy never to comment on the pope's personal life and the Gammarellis aren't talking either, reports the AP. I.L.

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