A Décolleté Contretemps at a Papal Audience: 1900

Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and Prince Phillip http://img69.imageshack.us/img69/4924/queenelizabethpopejohnx.jpg

Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and Prince Phillip http://img69.imageshack.us/img69/4924/queenelizabethpopejohnx.jpg

It is not generally known that Papal etiquette does not countenance décolleté dresses in the Pope’s presence, moreover his Holiness holds them in great abhorrence…This is rather awkward for those who are not aware that it is considered a breach of etiquette to appear at a Papal reception in ordinary dress, as the following instance will show.

A short time ago some American ladies who were visiting Rome, wishing to attend one of those receptions, made their appearance in ordinary court dress, having availed themselves to the fullest extent of the décolletage. His Holiness [Leo XIII] was horrified when he noticed them, but at the time refrained from taking any personal notice. Nevertheless he determined to take steps for its prevention In future. A certain well known cardinal was instructed by him to inform the ladies of their breach of etiquette.

The cardinal was a man of the world, and realized that the matter must be approached with the utmost tact and delicacy; after due consideration he approached the ladies and addressing them said: “The Pope is old-fashioned and does not like décolleté dresses, but,” he continued, waving his hand lightly in the air, “for me, I am quite accustomed them, you know, I have been so much among savages that I do not mind them.”

It was some little time before the ladies grasped the full significance of the cardinal’s words.

Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 22 April 1900: p. 13

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Touché, Cardinal! Such tact! Such address!

Mirroring temporal courts, Vatican protocol was quite rigid. Court dress was required for gentleman until nearly the date of this incident, so perhaps the ladies assumed it would be appropriate for them as well. In fact, a modestly-cut black gown and veil were essential as this book states:

Every one knows that there is a special costume for Papal audiences. The gown must be black, but it may be of any material, and white trimming on the bodice is admissible. One may also wear jewelry, at one’s discretion. A mantilla or veil is of obligation. One may not wear gloves. Gentlemen wear evening dress. Little children may wear white. New Footsteps in Well-Trodden Ways, Katherine E. Conway, 1899

Her Majesty, in the photo-gravure above, is dressed with perfect correctness. Some Catholic Queens and Princesses have the Privilège du blanc or the right to wear a white gown and mantilla at Papal audiences.

Mrs Daffodil is divided on the décolleté question. As a daughter of the Church of England, one naturally purses one’s lips dubiously at edicts from Rome.  However, as a loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen, one understands that there must be standards of decorum when in the presence of a sovereign.

While his Holiness Leo XIII was old-fashioned about ladies’ costumes, he was rather advanced in the field of celebrity endorsements. He enjoyed a tonic called Vin Mariani, made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, which was, as one imagines, quite the spritely pick-me-up. In fact, he enjoyed it so much he awarded the stimulating beverage a Vatican gold medal and appeared on an advertising poster, endorsing the Cup that Cheers. One feels that his Holiness was scarcely in a position to appear as an arbiter elegantiarum for the ladies.

Pope endorses wine

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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