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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 August, 2004, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
The Pope's new clothes

By Kieran Cooke
BBC, Rome

Tailor-made and fit for a Pope - have you ever wondered where the clergy go shopping?

Pope John Paul II
John Paul II became pope in 1978

At first glance the store looks much like any other tailor.

A little old-fashioned perhaps, with rows of small wooden drawers stretching to the ceiling.

There is a long, broad counter on which bolts of dark cloth are slapped with a resounding thud, ready for cutting.

Immaculately suited men bustle about with tape measures. There is a smell in the air of expensive aftershave, mixed with the odour of mothballs.

But the Gammarelli establishment - just off the Piazza Minerva in central Rome - is no ordinary tailors.

There is a sign over the door: Sartoria Per Ecclesiastici, or clerical outfitters.

Then there is the window display. No suits or shirts here; rather they are peaked clerical hats and priestly robes.

And in one corner, resting on a silk cloth, a solitary "zucchetto" - the small, white skullcap worn by the Pope.

Gammarelli is, in fact, the Pope's tailor.

It also serves other clerics - cardinals in their flaming red robes, monsignors in deep purple and cindery black for country priests.

Changing times

Gammarellis clerical outfitters
The pictures of famous customers stare down from the wall

Italy is considered to be the centre of the world's fashion industry and the Roman Catholic Church is not immune to changing tastes.

At one time, not so long ago, bishops would dress in long robes, a train of shimmering purple ribbed silk drifting after them.

There were plenty of tassels and pom-poms, highly elaborate vestments.

But then came Vatican II - the great ecclesiastical council in the 1960s - which decided the Church should try to move closer to the people and more into the modern age.

The council was something of a self-inflicted revolution. For instance, out went - for the most part - the Latin Mass.

Many of the old rituals were done away with. New, more simple, ceremonial was called for and orders were handed down from the Vatican that the pomp associated with the more elaborate vestments and costumes should go.

Red socks

I enter Gammarelli.

Gammarelli's window display
An assortment of coloured socks are displayed in the shop window

Call it eccentricity, call it a ridiculous fashion statement, but for years - as long as I can remember - I have favoured wearing red socks.

The trouble is they are not always easy to come by, not in the right shade anyway.

Once, in the midst of a rather tedious European Union conference, a French foreign minister confided that the place to buy such things was here, at Gammarelli.

"Ask", he said, "for the same socks as a cardinal."

I take a deep, nervous breath and approach the counter.

The pictures of famous customers stare down from the wall. They are not film stars or sports personalities but sombre looking portraits of popes, past and present.

Some of the church hierarchy did not approve of the changes following Vatican II; those who were uncomfortable with the new, less elaborate Church, and in particular the phasing out of the ancient Latin liturgy.

Dress was another matter of concern. Cardinals no longer would wear the "galero" - their wide-brimmed hats.

A monsignor told me he was instructed that purple socks - part of his normal day wear for years - were no longer approved.

"The Church," he said, "had a terrible outbreak of Puritanism."

'Happy clappy'

Is it possible, I ask the smiling man behind the counter, for non clerical customers to make purchases here?

Maximillian Gammarelli's family have been running the business for six generations. He could not be more obliging.

Perhaps the Church pendulum is swinging, ever so slowly, backwards

"Certainly", he says, "and what exactly, would Sir be requiring?"

"Well, I was rather keen on buying a pair of red socks," I say.

Steps are fetched and Maximillian ascends to the heights.

Interestingly, there is a reappraisal going on of those changes ushered in back in the 1960s at the Vatican II council.

There are those who feel that the Church, in losing some of its rituals, has also lost its status, its mystery.

Some say the Mass itself, in certain parts of the world, has been allowed to become little more than a "happy clappy" piece of entertainment.

Gammarelli's window display
Endorsement from the Pope has ensured Gammarelli's success

The Pope himself has talked of preserving the Church's traditions and has also spoken of the importance of its cultural heritage.

Perhaps the Church pendulum is swinging, ever so slowly, backwards.

Some feel it will not be too long before the old, elaborate robes and vestments appear again.

A tissued package is placed on the counter. The covering is peeled back to reveal a flaming red pair of socks, knee length.

Maximillian asks me to clench my fist while the sock foot is curled round. This method of measuring guarantees a perfect fit, he says.

The label on the socks is in English: "Gentleman socks," it says. "Wash in tepid water with neutral soap."

I am concerned I might be stopping the normal flow of clerical business.

The Pope is unlikely to stroll in looking for a new robe but maybe a bishop is waiting to be served.

I ask how much the socks cost. Nine euros and 30 cents, just over 6.

I take two pairs and walk, a little ecclesiastically, out into the Rome sunshine.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 August, 2004 at 1130BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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