The clandestine operations of The Vatican are largely obtuse to those without faith. Still, the organization’s opulence remains an object of fascination for fashion scholars and style industry insiders, as evident with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ostentatious Heavenly Bodies gala and exhibit in 2018. Only two years before that, Paolo Sorrentino’s bizarre vision of Catholic leadership enraptured audiences and critics alike. His HBO series, The Young Pope, explored a world in which a trendy but deeply fascistic and power-hungry American (played by Jude Law) ascended as the leader of the Church — but as he introduced sweeping conservative policies and performed a slew of miracles, a more moderate wing of the Vatican plotted to have him removed. The show abruptly concluded when Pope Pius XIII inexplicably collapsed. Now, Sorrentino is revisiting his transgressive interpretation of the spiritual world with a continuation of Pius’s story in a follow-up miniseries confusingly titled The New Pope.
Who Knew the New Pope Was a Style Gawd?!
Warning: Spoilers ahead
What made The Young Pope stand out as a TV show was its high art aspirations: Sorrentino’s absurdly gorgeous cinematographic eye complemented the dark tale of corrupted faith. The story explored the Catholic Church’s entrenched global power and their history of atrocities, including sex crime coverups and the persecution of homosexuals while simultaneously investigating the existential turmoil of spiritual leaders—all set to a soundtrack of sweeping orchestral music, minimalist synthpop and contemporary disco. It was Sorrentino’s sleek styling that made the show stand out—and the extravagant costuming throughout the program was a huge part.
Now, in The New Pope, universally beloved thespian John Malkovich has taken on the part of Sir John Brannox, an uber-wealthy cardinal who, through a series of internecine manipulations from Vatican higher-ups, has become Pius’s unlikely replacement. Brannox acts as a perfect foil to Pius: where Law’s character had been bombastic and despotic, Brannox is melancholic and whimsical. But will Brannox’s new position of power drive him mad?
“When we read the new scripts, we noticed that each character had evolved so much that we were forced to renew the type of costumes and go in completely different directions,” costume designers Carlo Poggioli and Luca Canfora told GQ, adding that the “boisterous and accursed” aesthetic inspirations for Brannox included Oscar Wilde, the Duke of Windsor, Prince Michael of Kent and David Bowie.
From the moment the audience is introduced to the harp-playing Brannox, it should be immediately apparent that this vaguely queeny character is an emerging style icon. Dripping in wealth and regality, Brannox’s stylistic smarts perfectly compliment his depressive personality and display a smart, mysterious sensibility.
Brannox’s color palette exudes majesty: maroons, beiges, arrogant blacks, deep blues, eggshell whites, purples, mauves, and forest greens are the dominant hues — all colors that have traditionally been associated with royalty and poise. The textures: lots of expensive velvets, shiny silks, and thick wools. Accessories: abundant, but somehow not tacky. The fit: Either billowing or slim-cut—harking back to the gothic tropes (no wonder he’s a Marilyn Manson fan!) of vacillating agoraphobia and claustrophobia. The patterns: Ornate and hyper-intricate paisley and houndstooth.
“The prints were made by one of the last craftswomen who still carry out fabric printing by hand using wooden molds,” Poggioli and Canfora explained. “It was made in a small workshop in Venice by two elderly sisters who work very little nowadays, but who accepted to produce it for us because they’re both devoted Malkovich fans!”
Similarly, much was made of Pius’s red Louboutin’s — but Brannox couldn’t be bothered with such garishness, which is why he switched out the loud red leather for a softer and subtle velvet damask.
A key aspect of Brannox’s character is his lilting and ambiguous effeminacy; he regularly receives calls from Meghan Markle asking for outfit advice. When an advisor notices his sartorial supremacy, she asks if he’s gay—to which he responds with a resounding and inconclusive belly laugh. And Brannox’s styling matches this kind of quizzical androgyny, calling to attention the already confusingly gendered nature of most papal robes: He’s usually seen sporting heavy emo-inflected eyeliner (a detail which had been emphasized in the script itself!), and his flowing coats are almost dresses. Is he intentionally genderfucking—or just pleasantly eccentric?
When Brannox is elected Pope, taking on the name Pope John Paul III, he is forced to swap out his moodier outfits for more traditional robes, which are (despite the solemn martyrdom required of his position) dripping in gold and jewels. The color palette changes to crisp whites and robust reds, colors that indicate his purity and power.
Brannox begins his Papacy with a message about love, but questions remain as to whether his socialite proclivities will turn him into more of a celebrity than a leader. Considering the excellent costuming the series showcases so far, it will be interesting to watch as John Paul III’s outfits change to reflect what’s happening in the rest of the story—or if he’ll abandon his Louboutin’s in search of something more.