September 11, 1978 12:00 PM

When John Paul I appeared for the first time as Pope on St. Peter’s balcony to give the traditional urbi et orbi blessing, his new raiment—a white watered-silk cassock topped with a red satin mozzetta (hooded cape) and gold-tasseled subcinctorium (sash)—looked custom-made. Yet he had been elected in sealed conclave barely an hour before.

It was not totally a miracle. Just as the cardinal-electors were boarded and padlocked in for their deliberations, Annibale and Francesco Gammarelli, the official outfitters of the Pope, arrived with boxes of papal vestments in three different sizes: short-stout, tall-thin and tall-robust. “We were convinced the new Pope would be Italian,” explains Francesco, 43, who adds that he and his brother, Annibale, 46, had narrowed their own papabili (potential Popes) to three. Though most authorities and commentators gave Albino Cardinal Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, only an outside chance, Francesco insists, “We had him in mind when we made the medium [tall-thin] size.” (The other two on their list were both insiders from the Roman Curia, Cardinals Baggio and Felici.)

Gammarelli, a family-owned firm of ecclesiastical tailors since 1793, has all but sewn up the garment trade among the upper hierarchy of the Roman Church. It numbers among its clients 85 percent of the College of Cardinals. The new Holy Father has himself been a customer for 20 years and as a cardinal averaged two new cassocks annually through his secretary. Back in Venice he usually wore a plain black cassock instead of the cardinal’s ornate scarlet.

For all the experience and aplomb of the house of Gammarelli, its system is not goof-proof. The worst mixup came in the papal election of 1958, when the portly John XXIII couldn’t fit into his wardrobe. There followed a hasty tearing of seams down the back to enable the new pontiff to put in a brief, strictly frontal appearance before the cheering multitudes. The next day Pope John phoned at 5 a.m. to find out what happened, then publicly absolved the Gammarellis of any blame. An aide had picked up the wrong box.

John was, in any event, a difficult fit. “He had a concave chest with a huge paunch and enormous upper arms,” says Annibale. In contrast, Pope Paul VI’s trim figure was far easier to tailor. “John suffered from the heat and always preferred the lightest-weight material,” reveals Annibale, and he went through more clothing in his five-year reign than Paul in his 15.

The Gammarellis are too discreet to talk about the prices of such items as the new Pope’s rochet (overgarment), made from 40-year-old hand-worked Belgian lace, now unobtainable. They even claim that clothing the Holy Father is not profitable. But they enjoy the “inestimable prestige” of being papal outfitters, and their reward is being able to drop little observations like Francesco’s: “Pope John Paul is a very informal person—like one of us.”

The brothers have also served moviemakers, including Otto Preminger during the filming of The Cardinal. Lay tourists visit their store, near the Pantheon in Old Rome, for hand-colored parchments proclaiming the papal blessing. There are other ecclesiastical tailors in Italy, but it’s not like the secular world’s Darwinian struggle between Gucci and Pucci, Camarino and Valentino. Among well-dressed Catholic clergymen in Rome and everywhere, it’s make mine Gammarelli.

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