Historically, all popes wore red shoes — before Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose tenure lasted nearly three decades, exercised his right to opt out and switched to a more demure burgundy. (They also wore red indoor slippers, before Pope Paul VI discontinued the practice, for good, in the 1960s.)
The color has a variety of significances: Some believe it is a reminder of Jesus’ bloodied feet when he was crucified, while others believe it represents the spilled blood of Catholic martyrs. Ancient kings are said to have worn red as a symbol of status, because the dye required to make it came from rare sea snails; aristocrats and royalty continued the tradition, and some believe the church adopted the color as a way for popes to assert their equal “worldly authority.”
When Benedict opted to revive the red-shoes tradition, they were a sensation. Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based editor of the Catholic news site Whispers in the Loggia, still remembers seeing them for the first time in person in 2008. “My first thought to myself was, ‘Oh my God, those shoes are really red.’ Despite having been quite familiar with them, there was something in the flesh that made them pop,” he says now, with a laugh.
The Prada rumor, which originated in the Italian press, Palmo says, “was kind of the beginning of, you know, the internet being able to say something, regardless of the veracity of it.”
The Vatican later clarified that the shoes were custom-made for him not by Prada but by other Italian cobblers. Some were by Antonio Arellano, based in Rome. Others were by Adriano Stefanelli, in the northwest Italian city of Novara. Stefanelli shared with The Washington Post a 2005 letter from the Vatican officially inviting him to design shoes for the new pope. “The Holy Father wears shoes in size 42, normal,” it reads in Italian, “and has no foot problems whatsoever.”
When Esquire named Benedict to its list of best-dressed men in 2007 and specifically called out his footwear, Stefanelli tells The Post in an email, it “made me famous across the world, which fills me with pride.”
Benedict would go on to revive a few other papal clothing traditions as well. In 2006, he wore a red cappello romano sun hat (also known as a saturno), a style that hadn’t been worn since before John Paul II. And that came a year after what Vatican-watchers remember as a rare internet-breaking pope fashion moment: the Christmas camauro of 2005. A few days before the holiday, at a special outdoor edition of his weekly “general audience” appearance, Benedict wore a traditional papal winter head covering, historically made of red velvet with a white ermine trim. Which looks — uncannily, adorably — like a Santa Claus hat. The style had not been worn by a pope since John XXIII, who died in 1963.
Many have taken Benedict’s returning-to-traditions clothing choices as evidence of his staid, returning-to-traditions approach to Catholic doctrine. Palmo sees it slightly differently.
Benedict was much more introverted and scholarly than his charismatic predecessor, Palmo notes, and once called his vast book collection his “old friends.” Of the Christmas camauro, Palmo posits that the weather was cold and that the pope simply reached for something that had been stashed away in the archives of the church. But to Palmo, that in itself was telling: “I think it did speak to — to a degree, at least — his theological emphases,” Palmo says, “in that the church has a lot hanging around that could be useful.”
From 2008: The philosophical threads woven into papal garments
Palmo also interprets Benedict’s journeys into the deep recesses of the Vatican costume closet as statements of his commitment to putting the papacy before the pope. Others, such as John Paul II and Francis, have incorporated their own personal styles into what they wore on the job. Benedict, in contrast, wore the vesture like a uniform, emphasizing his notion of the papacy not as a glamorous appointment but as the humble, humbling job of leading the Catholic Church. The approach is fitting, Palmo notes, for the first man in nearly 600 years to resign from being the pope, leaving the office not like a king but like someone whose tour of duty had concluded.
Upon his resignation, Benedict retired his red shoes in favor of brown leather loafers made in León, Mexico. How a pope emeritus should dress, of course, was a question without an established answer; as Palmo puts it: “The whole concept of the pope emeritus was invented on the fly.” But Benedict’s eventual uniform was clearly aimed at creating distance from the new pope. He also ditched the mozzetta (a cape traditionally worn over the shoulders of the pope) as well as the pope’s traditional sash.
“For a church with a long history, including a history of rival claimants to the papacy, setting careful precedents was important,” Arthur P. Urbano wrote in America magazine in 2013. “ … Putting aside red shoes reserves the privileged combination of white and red for the new pope.” Francis, however, has made black orthopedics made by Argentine shoemaker Carlos Samaria his signature look.
Traditionally, popes have been buried in their ceremonial red shoes. Will the once-in-a-millennium pope emeritus be buried in them, too? Palmo speculates so. “The shoes will, in all likelihood, be there.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article said Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope in a thousand years to resign from the position. He was the first in nearly 600 years to do so. This version has been corrected.