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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Jul-17-2009 (860 words) With photos. xxxi

Vatican dress code: Do's and don'ts for presidential, pilgrim attire

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Deciding what to wear to an evening wedding is challenging enough; imagine how daunting it is to choose proper attire for a papal audience.

Even the most seasoned president, prime minister and ambassador must struggle with deciphering proper protocol. But women, whether they are government leaders or the first lady, have to grapple with a lot more when they meet the pope.

While the men can usually do no wrong donning a dark suit and tie, women are more vulnerable to sartorial snafus.

The most famous fashion failure among first ladies was in December 1989 when Raisa Gorbachev showed up wearing "a bright red dress," as more than one veteran Vatican reporter recalled.

She must have been aware of the uproar her red skirt and jacket with a black collar had caused because when she and her husband, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, returned 11 months later, her outfit was considerably toned down.

For her second visit, Gorbachev wore a bright crimson blouse and bow knotted tightly under her chin that peeked out from under a gray wool jacket and long skirt.

To avoid any gaffes, dignitaries preparing for a papal audience usually contact their embassy to the Vatican for some pointers.

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See has a Vatican protocol primer that walks people through what is considered the proper dress code.

For men: black or dark suit, aka business attire, with a dark tie.

For women: black skirt or dress that reaches at least the knees, black top with mid- to long-sleeves, no pants, simple jewelry, dark closed-toe shoes, and a black hat or veil is optional.

Some blogs and news stories assumed U.S. first lady Michelle Obama wore a long black veil to her July 10 audience with the pope because she was required to do so.

But the Vatican does not mandate that women cover their heads. In fact, the pontifical household said there is no formal or specific dress protocol at all.

The household's regent, Msgr. Paolo De Nicolo, told Catholic News Service that as long as a person's outfit is "decent" and "in good taste," anything goes.

That's why, when women from African or Asian nations wear very elaborate or colorful traditional formal wear to a papal audience, it's not considered a rude or lewd fashion faux pas.

To wear white to a papal audience, however, "is not in good taste," Msgr. De Nicolo said. The only people allowed to do so, he said, are Catholic kings, queens and other reigning Catholic royalty.

A number of African leaders have inadvertently shown up in white. Winnie Mandela, who was the wife of then-vice president of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela, wore a long lacy dress that was whiter than the pope's vestments in a June 15, 1990, visit to the Vatican.

While heads of state and their spouses usually are quickly forgiven for poor choices in attire, camera operators, still photographers and reporters covering papal audiences are vetted much more sternly.

Journalists not abiding by the dress code outlined by the Vatican press office or the Pontifical Council for Social Communications will be barred from entering the papal palace.

One sound engineer for a major U.S. news outlet got bounced at the door when he showed up without a jacket for the pool covering U.S. President Barack Obama's visit.

His producer, who was dressed in the required dark suit and tie, had to fill in and was saddled with the soundman's heavy recorder, battery packs and boom mike, which he then had to carry and operate while still trying to write up his own news report. The show must go on.

The resourceful, however, can save face and their assignment.

When one male journalist following Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko showed up for a June papal audience without his jacket, a colleague who was covering the event from the papal courtyard removed his own dark jacket and passed it on to him. Though he looked a bit silly swimming in a coat two sizes too big, he was allowed to enter the papal palace to cover the event.

Pilgrims to the Vatican may have their own stories of disappointment or near misses to tell. On sweltering summer days in Rome, scores of visitors are turned away from St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums because they're not dressed decently.

Transparent clothing, halter and tank tops, spaghetti-straps, and shorts or skirts that don't reach the knees are strictly forbidden.

Slap-dash adjustments are accepted; for example, a shawl or sweater can be draped in such a way that it covers bare knees or shoulders. One tourist was begrudgingly allowed in the basilica after using her spaghetti straps to secure two paper tissues over her bare shoulders.

A museum employee told CNS that dressing decently is a common courtesy; one is after all a guest in "a place deserving respect" when visiting the museums or a pilgrim in a place of worship when visiting the basilica.

Clothes do indeed make the woman and the man, and they can also make or break a visit to the Vatican.


Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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