Heavenly Bodies: The history and story of Catholic vestments

Currently on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is 'Heavenly Bodies', an exhibition that ‘explores fashion's ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism’. It features papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been shown outside of The Vatican. Inspired by the exhibition’s theme, this blog looks at the meaning behind some of the vestments worn by the Pope and priests.

Priest’s vestments

The ceremonial robes worn by priests are called ‘vestments’, which means ‘clothing’ in Latin. Derived from the secular clothing of the ancient Romans and Greeks, vestments – which are not worn in everyday life – are a uniform representing the sanctity of a priest’s office and his role in leading liturgies.  

According to The Vatican: ‘The form of the vestments, therefore, says that the liturgy is celebrated "in persona Christi" and not in the priest's own name. He who performs a liturgical function does not do so as a private person, but as a minister of the Church and an instrument in the hands of Jesus Christ.‘

There are five different-coloured vestments worn by priests. Each colour has a symbolic meaning and aligns to different ‘seasons’ within the Catholic calendar. They are:

  • Green: This is the colour of vestment most commonly worn by priests during much of the Church year, described as Ordinary Time. It symbolises nature, life and growth.
  • White: Worn on major feast days and during Christmas and Easter, white is a joyful colour that represents resurrection.
  • Red: Symbolising blood and fire, red is worn on Palm Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation, and – due to its association with martyrs – is also the garment worn by priests on the feast days of martyrs.
  • Purple: Worn during Lent and Advent, purple symbolises penance and repentance.
  • Rose pink: An optional colour that can be worn on two Sundays a year, the Third Sunday of Advent and The Fourth Sunday of Lent, it represents a softening of the remorseful tone of these two seasons.

The Pope’s clothing

Each item in the Pope’s wardrobe has its own unique history and religious symbolism. Some of which include:


The triangular folded hat worn by Popes – as well as bishops and cardinals – is called a mitre. Mitres denote authority and have long been worn during special religious ceremonies. Each Pope has a variety of mitres that he wears and fashions in his own unique way. Mitre styles may vary in height, choice of colour and materials, and how they’re bejewelled or embellished.

Red shoes

Historically, the Pope would wear red shoes. The red is said to symbolise the blood of martyrs. While Pope Francis has opted for brown shoes instead of red, Pope Benedict XVI before him wore red shoes.


Derived from a small brimless hat worn by the ancient Romans called a ‘pileus’, the zucchetto is a silk skullcap. Worn alone, and also underneath the mitre, the colour of the zucchetto represents the wearer’s rank in the church, with bishops wearing purple, cardinals wearing red, and white being solely for the Pope.

Want to see more? Take a sneak peek at the Heavenly Bodies exhibition and enjoy the visual feast that melds historical Catholic artefacts with modern-day Catholic-inspired fashion.


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Pope’s clothing: