I’m Italian and a lapsed Catholic, which makes me the perfect target audience for immaculate luxury and overt horniness of The New Pope. This season, we met Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), a cardinal from England who is elected the titular new pope. Brannox is a masterpiece of British opulence with his heavy wool suits and monk-strap shoes; everything from the androgyny of his eyeliner to the drama of his capes reminds us that there is more to him than what seeps through his restrained and poetic dialogue. Then, of course, there’s Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who begins the season lying comatose in a hospital bed with a small washcloth over his crotch — an almost mirror image of the crucifixes I grew up seeing in church — and ends it lying dead, after walking through the crowds of St. Peter’s Square after one last spiritual address. No onscreen presence makes a stronger case for the complex eroticism of the Catholic aesthetic than Lenny. Everything from the restrained sexiness and simplicity of his white boxer briefs to the subtle but undeniable appeal of his cassocks and collars exude a particular sensuality.
With The New Pope finished this week, series costumer Carlo Poggioli talked to Vulture via email about how they created garments literally fit for a pope, the modesty and sexuality of religious vestments, and the ways in which costuming was used to show us the difference between Lenny and John. Every costume in The New Pope is superlative — each one made with pristine attention to detail, exquisite taste, and an allegiance to historical accuracy — but these nine stood out as particularly illustrative of who these two men are.
Sir John Brannox (also known as Pope John Paul III)
When we first meet John Brannox, he is wearing an impeccable deep-plum heavy wool suit, and his aesthetic immediately registers as distinct from Lenny’s and the other clergymen. “All his habits follow the great British tradition in terms of fabrics, including the choice of cashmeres, of colors, and of the various patterns,” says Poggioli. All of Brannox’s outfits, he explains — some 50 items between suits, coats, sweaters, etc. — were designed and created specifically with director Paolo Sorrentino and Malkovich. They were constructed by the designers at Cesare Attolini, a famous Neapolitan designer, who, according to Poggioli, is one of the last companies to still tailor men’s suits by hand. They provided luxury fabrics, including cashmeres produced in Scotland.
While classic, Brannox’s style is also rich with flair. Poggioli says they took inspiration from British artists, poets, and aristocrats — “from Oscar Wilde, the elegance of Edward VIII Prince of Wales, all the way to the flair of a David Bowie.” And for his color palette, they drew from “the melancholy atmosphere of his London castle, with an occasional eye to his past fanciful dandiness.”
Brannox later appears in a striking white suit accented by a red bow tie — the stand-up collar of the jacket framing the red bow tie appears almost like an inverse of the black priest vestments with their white collars. Poggioli says this costuming decision was intentional to show where Brannox is at that moment in his life, as he’s been offered a run at the Papacy. “It anticipates what he’s meditating as a character, i.e., his intention to accept going to Rome to be elected,” he says. “He starts coveting the idea of wearing a color [white] used only by one very special person: the pope. The red touch is the last link to his being still a cardinal.”
The first time we see Brannox in his papal uniform, it is a moment. You’d be forgiven for thinking, just momentarily, that maybe John Malkovich is the pope? And there’s a reason for that. The religious vestments of The New Pope are not made to look like the real thing; they essentially are the real thing. According to Poggioli, cassocks and coats for the main characters — including the popes, cardinals, and bishops — are made by the I Sarti del Borgo in Rome, which makes clothing for the Vatican’s Swiss guards.
“There are some very specific complicated rules to follow when you tailor these cassocks,” he explains. “First of all, you have to use the real fabrics actually used for popes, cardinals etc., because they have to fall in a certain way, the color has to be right, so they have to be absolutely faithful to the originals! The wrist has to have a particular height, the belt a particular proportion, the pockets have to be well hidden, and so on.”
When Brannox retires in the evenings, he dons beautiful silk kimonos that exude a sort of subversive romanticism. Even in repose, he is a man of glamour. “Brannox carries on wearing in private, even during his papacy, clothes that are part of his natural elegance,” says Poggioli. “Clothes that make him feel comfortable, like a second skin.”
The kimonos were all specially made in Poggioli’s design workshop; three were the result of a collaboration with British outfitter New & Lingwood. “One of the dressing gowns we produced, and which we’re particularly fond of, is a Bordeaux silk that was printed in gold using an old system of craftsmanship (Art Nouveau style) with wooden tiles sculpted by hand following a design representing angels and made by two elderly Venetian craftswomen, who spent two weeks to produce it and who only accepted the job because they both love Malkovich!”
The red papal slippers are iconic, and Brannox’s are no exception. While they’re similar to Lenny’s in silhouette and color, that’s about it. “We needed to characterize them differently to respect Brannox’s different brand of elegance,” says Poggioli, adding that it was Christian Louboutin’s idea to make them in a precious silk damask. “When they met on the set, both dressed as popes (in the same way, with their white cassocks),” he says. “Jude Law looked at Malkovich’s shoes, called us, and said, ‘I’m very jealous … John’s shoes are much more beautiful than mine!’”
Lenny Belardo (also known as Pope Pius XIII)
It is hard to put into words exactly how exquisite Lenny looks in his crisp white boxer shorts. The mystique of Lenny’s sexuality was the centerpiece in a number of The Young Pope’s plotlines, and it’s understandably hard not to read sex into Jude Law dressed up like a priest. But, as Poggioli explains, reducing the taboo of it all would mean minimizing the nuance of the costuming and its context.
“Beneath those those long cassocks — whether black for priests, red for cardinals, or white for popes — there are real human beings, who, in spite of their vow of chastity to God, still have their passions, loves, and sexual desires, repressed out of love for the rules of the Church in an acceptance of the sense of ‘sin’ that the Church imposed since its official establishment,” he says. “Our contribution as costume designers was simply to help viewers understand what may lie hidden behind the personality of a character via his style of clothing and reveal what they may be concealing of their privateness … some white sexy underwear? Why not?”
Lenny’s all-white tracksuit was a wardrobe staple last season, and when he miraculously awakes from his coma, it once again becomes his go-to look for casual days around the Vatican. The two-piece ensemble is incredibly pure in nature, yet still somehow incredibly sexy. While the tracksuit might look simple, it’s not something you’ll find in your average department store. “Lenny likes to dress comfortably,” he says. “He’s sporty, and it seemed right to make him wear a simple white tracksuit, albeit one made of precious cashmere made by the renowned Italian outfitter La Perla.”
When Lenny is released from the hospital, he lives, somewhat undercover, as a civilian with the doctor who cared for him when he was comatose. Here, for the first time, we see him in something other than his religious vestments or his tracksuit. Dressed in clothing borrowed from his doctor, Lenny is still very much Lenny. In neutral tones and luxe knits, he looks both refined and restrained as he does in his other costumes; there is still a stark contrast between this aesthetic and the bold, dramatic wardrobe of Brannox. But the outfit’s simplicity does not mean it is not incredibly luxurious. “Some of these items were supplied by a great Italian designer, who is also a cinema lover and a close friend of Sorrentino: Giorgio Armani,” says Poggioli. “The casualwear is linked to a special moment when Lenny needs to hide.”
Lenny’s red slippers, like Brannox’s, are a key feature in his wardrobe. While they arguably played a bigger role in The Young Pope, it’s important to highlight them to illustrate the impeccable way costuming was used to delineate between the two men. (Especially when so much of their papal wardrobes had to be similar, even identical, by nature.) Brannox’s damask slippers mirror the opulence and design of his kimonos and his suits. Lenny’s, however, are more traditional: They look the same as the slippers you would see on the actual pope.
This, of course, reflects who Lenny is all the same. He’s a classic, more reverent than John of traditions both aesthetic and proverbial. That being said, Lenny’s slippers are far from pedestrian: Poggioli says that his bright red slippers were also made by Louboutin.