Ms. Bianchetti’s company is among Italy’s leading suppliers of ecclesiastical clothing, and it was her renovation of a voluminous pleated black habit worn by a small community of Franciscan friars in Assisi, barely altered for hundreds of years, that landed her in the headlines.
Since receiving the commission last year to redesign the habit worn by 90 Franciscan friars of the Third Order Regular, Ms. Bianchetti and her design have been praised, debated and excoriated in the Italian press. The state-run television network RAI broadcast a documentary on her innovations, which were termed prete-à-porter, a pun on both the Italian word for priest and the French term for ready-to-wear.
”What Elisabetta Bianchetti did is quite radical,” said Adriana Sartogo, who produced the film for RAI-TV. ”Italians are very conservative about the clergy, and to restyle their clothes never, ever happens here.”
The changes made by Ms. Bianchetti were, in fact, duly modest. Streamlining a heavy folded wool robe, she also adapted its color to accord with records of St. Francis from the 13th century. But it was her replacement of two small slits on the garment with a pair of shirt-style pockets that apparently tickled a bemused Italian press.
It is open to question whether the Rev. Lino Temperini, the monk who commissioned the alteration, ever made the claim that the pockets were to accommodate keys and a cellphone, as was widely reported. Father Temperini now disavows the quotations. ”We really don’t understand where all the fuss came from,” he said in a telephone interview. ”A lot of it is hype.” The news media ”picked up on the cellphones, which is a little ridiculous,” he added.
Father Temperini’s reticence is understandable given the image giddily conjured by the Italian press, which depicted followers of the saint who by legend spoke to birds trading their asceticism for text messaging, digital paging and caller ID.
”Who could ever imagine the mediagenic power of two pockets?” Ms. Bianchetti said of the stir generated by the new habits, which were delivered earlier this month and worn for the first time by the monks of the 90-member community, based near the shrine of St. Francis in Assisi.
”There is a lingering sentiment that modern gadgets distance us from the poor,” said the Rev. Michael Cusato, an associate professor of history at the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. ”It’s always been a squeamish issue. The poor don’t have cellphones — why should we?”
Globally the principal clerical branches of the Franciscans — the Friars Minor, Friars Minor Conventual and Friars Minor Capuchin — number about 33,000, although Father Anthony LoGalbo, the librarian at the Franciscan Institute, said the order counts as many as one million followers including lay members. As the Rev. Cassian Miles, the director of communications for the order’s Holy Name Province in New York City, put it, ”The main branches are something like the Army, the Navy and the Marines.”
Although a part of this mainstream, the Third Order Regular friars in Assisi would seem too small a group for their changes of dress to make much stir, even within the Franciscan world. But, Father Cusato said, ”there is a deeper issue involved.” The new habits, he suggested, are a way for the Third Order Regulars to separate themselves from the clerical mainstream.
The alterations Ms. Bianchetti made would have seemed respectful enough to suit the most ardent traditionalist. A broad, unadorned tunic of lightweight wool, the habit is cinched with a plain white rope belt knotted three times, as it is believed to have been in the time of St. Francis, to signify vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. The color is the dun hue of undyed wool. ”In England we were once known as the Gray Friars,” said Father Cusato, ”because the habit of St. Francis used wool without dye.”
Yet when news of the renovated habits was first broadcast last year, the Rev. Waldemar Barszcz, a top official of the Third Order Regular, which has 900 friars worldwide, curtly told Il Giornale, the Milanese daily, that ”many don’t agree with the experiment to change the habit.”
”That is why the order to Miss Bianchetti will be 30 and not 3,000,” he added. (In fact, the initial order was for 60 robes.) Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily, lamented that ”even Franciscans have given in to the fascination with ready-to-wear.”
The Rev. Enzo Fortunato, a spokesman for the Conventual Franciscans in Italy, took a more moderate view. ”It certainly doesn’t mean that they are abandoning the message of poverty or simplicity,” he said.
Ms. Bianchetti also professed some surprise at the outcry over her adjustments to the habit, which she researched in historical depictions of St. Francis and in archives that showed rules governing the way the earliest Franciscans dressed. A papal bull of 1289 first authorized the Franciscans to design a habit distinguishing them from ”simple hermits.” The cloak of the time was most likely a brown or gray tunic like that still worn by a majority of Franciscans worldwide. It was not until the Rule of Bonaventure of Vicenza, a document issued in the 16th century, that the pointed shape of the Franciscans’ characteristic hooded cape was established. In the early 1800’s the gray of the habit of the Third Order Regulars became black, and so it remained until Ms. Bianchetti got Father Temperini’s call.
”A commission like this is not a matter of fashion,” said Ms. Bianchetti, 39, who studied Slavonic history at the University of Milan and wrote a thesis on Russian icons before joining her husband’s family firm, Manifatture Mario Bianchetti, which makes textiles as well as clothes for priests and nuns. ”It is a uniform that has to communicate the wearer’s working function as well as symbolically to represent the soul.”
Ecclesiastical clothing in Italy is a $26 million annual business, including nuns’ veils, monastic cloaks and off-the-peg chasubles for priests. Another of Ms. Bianchetti’s designs — a papal miter — received what some would consider the ultimate imprimatur when Pope John Paul II wore it during a mass for the feast of SS. Peter and Paul in June. Adorned with antique gold braid, it was incised with a cross that alluded to the slashed canvases of the Italian modernist painter Lucio Fontana. It was meant to symbolize ineffable mysteries.
Changes in ecclesiastical garb, explained Filippo Gammarelli, scion of a Roman company that has served as the Vatican tailor for centuries, are ”necessarily a little bit different from fashion.” That is not to suggest that those changes are altogether uninfluenced by the world of style. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) simplified clerical garb, high-ranking members of the clergy were often tailored with an ostentation that might put the Parisian haute couture to shame. Official depictions of Pope John XXIII show him wearing sumptuous laces, an ermine-trimmed cloak and an emerald roughly the size of a pigeon’s egg. By contrast, Mr. Gammarelli said, John Paul II dresses humbly. Save that they are white, his everyday cassocks are not vastly different from those of a parish priest.
”Before the Second Vatican Council, cardinals, bishops and monsignors used to have a very rich wardrobe,” Mr. Gammarelli said. ”Now, all that is simplified.”
In researching the garments, Ms. Bianchetti concluded that the tunics and hoods worn by some Franciscans had strayed from their original plainness. ”They would not have been dyed black,” she said, as were those of the Third Order Regular. They would not have been voluminous and richly folded. They would not have had pleats.
”The idea was to contextualize, to design with humility,” Ms. Bianchetti said, seated in her firm’s cork-paneled office near Milan’s central railroad station, around her a collection of priestly mantles and button-on veils. ”These people are teaching, traveling, praying, meditating, and it’s much more important to accommodate the symbolic and practical functions than to say, ‘This is a design by Elisabetta Bianchetti.’ ”
Some years back, Ms. Bianchetti said, she was offered a job designing for one of Milan’s many well-known fashion houses. She turned it down. ”To design for the religious world gives you much more depth of satisfaction than coming up with some new kind of skirt,” she said, brushing aside the media brouhaha. ”This is not Versace, you know.”
Photos: Elisabetta Bianchetti, whose redesign of a Franciscan habit raised eyebrows in Italy.; The new robe at the monastery of St. Francis. The models were not compensated.; The Rev. Lino Temperini fits his spectacles (not a cellphone) into one of the celebrated pockets. (Photographs by Piero Pomponi/Getty Images, for The New York Times); (Pigi Cipelli for The New York Times)