"When in doubt wear red" is a well-known fashion tip.
But to a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, there's never much hesitation. Red is the color of his uniform, and the hue symbolizes a commitment to die for his church if necessary.
In a formal ceremony on Saturday, 23 new "princes of the Church" will don the crimson outfits when Pope Benedict XVI brings them into the elite circle of his closest advisers. They join a group which, when the time comes, will elect his successor from within their own ranks.
The expression "getting a red hat" is synonymous with being named a cardinal. During the ceremony, the pope places on each man's head the three-cornered red "biretta." As the new cardinals bow their heads to receive the hat, the pope reminds them that red signifies their willingness to act "with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith."
Once the almost exclusive domain of the Gammarelli family, papal tailors for the past 200 years, high-end clerical tailoring is now more spread out, with some cardinals opting to have their outfits made back home.
"It's all very exciting," said 23-year old Stefano Gammarelli, standing behind the timeworn oak table on which the tailors exhibit the sumptuous fabrics used for their strictly hand-made garments.
Stefano is at his second elevation ceremony, and says there is nothing like the buzz of last-minute fittings and trimmings. The family keeps sizes and shapes of their clients on a computer, which facilitates fittings, as most of their customers do not live in the Eternal City.
Dress for the ceremony is the same as for any formal occasion: rigorously red from head to toe, from crimson skull cap to scarlet socks.
The basic ceremonial garment is a red cassock with red silk buttons, girthed with a red silk moire sash and worn with a matching red short cape known as a `mozetta.' A white lace or linen surplice, called a rochet, completes the outfit. Accessories include a red and gold braided cord to hold the pectoral cross, and a gold ring which the newly named cardinals will receive during a special Mass Sunday.
"We haven't gotten much sleep lately," said Francesco Cattaneo, whose family runs a modern ecclesiastical shop near St. Peter's Square. They, too, have been commissioned to outfit several of the new princes of the church, and last minute touches were still being put on the outfits, especially for out-of-town candidates.
A cardinal's everyday wardrobe includes a black cassock trimmed in red, worn with a red sash and a red skull cap. According to Cattaneo, African cardinals, such as Archbishop John Njue, the newly named cardinal of Nairobi, Kenya, often order a special everyday version in heat repellent, red-trimmed white, to shield them from the soaring temperatures in their countries.
The average cost of a complete cardinals outfit is around EUR2,500 (US$3,700) but can reach nearly EUR4,000 (US$5,925) depending on the choice of fabric and workmanship.
The cheapest items in the cardinal's closet are the red socks which sell at an average of EUR10 (US$15) a pair, in clerical shops around the city.
Cardinals get most of their wardrobe from benefactors, including family and friends. The gold rings received during Sunday's Mass are a gift from Benedict.
Although to some the elaborate garb might seem obsolete, the current wardrobe is almost minimalist compared to the one in vogue less than 50 years ago.
Cardinals named by Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963, also wore a princely silk cloak with an extensive train, a wide-brimmed velvet hat with braided tassel and shoes decorated with shiny gold buckles.
Today's globe-trotting cardinals wear sturdy black loafers.
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