The pope's personal style — which earned him Esquire magazine's "Best Dressed Man of 2013" award — and his broader message of sobriety will be put to the test Saturday when he inducts 19 prelates into the College of Cardinals, placing the three-cornered red silk biretta on the heads of the new "princes of the church."
For the festive occasion, cardinals are traditionally outfitted in scarlet from head to toe, from the silk skull cap to bright red socks, with a white lace embroidered surplice known as a rochet worn over the red cassock and underneath the mozzetta, or shoulder cape.
But with the "slum pope" now calling the sartorial shots, fashionistas and Vaticanistas are wondering how his new cardinals — who hail from some of the poorest places on Earth, including Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast — will dress themselves for their new role.
"What will make the difference at the consistory is how the cardinals interpret this traditional outfit," said Raniero Mancinelli who has dressed cardinals and even popes since the early 1960's from his tiny shop right outside the Vatican walls.
Will they splurge for the fancy, optional red silk cape favoured by some first-world cardinals? Or will they go the route of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who according to clerical legend wore an altered hand-me-down cassock inherited from his predecessor for his 2001 consistory?
"The cardinals and priests are much more careful of shining and spend less on their clothes," Mancinelli told The Associated Press. "The gilded miters are only in shop windows. This is a consequence of Francis. They want to show they are on the same pastoral page."
Mancinelli, who is getting little sleep these days putting the finishing touches on outfits commissioned by several of the new cardinals, has some tips of what to watch out for on Saturday, when Francis will preside over the consistory formally welcoming the new cardinals.
Immediately noticeable will be how much lace is on the rochet, once sewn by hand — with a price-tag to match — but now often machine made. "This is the Francis effect," he said of the cheaper version as he ran his fingers over a prototype.
Back in 2001 when the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, he wore a simple rochet with only two thin bands of embroidered lace.
Another saving can come in the material used for the cassock itself. Once made out of precious silk and cashmere, the cassocks are now often synthetic: polyester for the red lining and territal, a synthetic wool blend.
"It costs less and also lasts longer, that's for sure," Macinelli said.
Once handmade, the 33 red buttons (representing the years of Christ's life) are now more often than not machine made.
The cardinals' red, it should be noted, isn't just a fabulous fashion statement: As Francis will recite when he places the biretta on each prelate's head, red symbolizes a cardinal's readiness to sacrifice his life for the church and "to act with courage, even to the shedding of your blood."
Altogether, a cardinal's outfit runs in the "few hundreds of euros, not few thousands," Mancinelli said. One relatively reasonable add-on: a pair of red socks at 12 euros a pop.
Cardinal watchers might also want to keep their eyes on the pectoral crosses worn by the churchmen: When the Jesuit Bergoglio became a bishop in 1992, a friend bought him the simple metal pectoral cross he continues to wear as pope (having eschewed the gold-plated one offered to him the night of his election). Bergoglio's metal cross was purchased in Mancinelli's shop and identical versions are on sale for about 330 euros today.
And of course, there are the parties that follow the consistory. In the past, new cardinals have been known to have sumptuous receptions thrown on their behalf by donors, friendly religious orders or church institutions. They are meant to entertain the parishioners, friends and family who may have travelled long distances for the occasion. It should be recalled that when Francis was installed as pope, he asked his sister to stay home in Argentina and for his other countrymen to donate to charity the money they would have spent to travel to Rome.
In a personal letter sent to his new cardinals in early January, Francis asked them to accept his nomination with joy, but to "do so in a way that this avoids any expression of worldliness, or any celebration alien to the evangelical spirit of austerity, simplicity and poverty."
Mancinelli said that ever since Francis became pope a year ago, there has been a bit of "belt-tightening" all around in clerical garb, due also to the global economic crisis.
But there will always be exceptions. Across the Tiber river from the Vatican and Mancinelli's small shop is Gammarelli, tailors by papal appointment and founded in 1798. Gammarelli famously prepares the three white outfits — small, medium and large — that a newly elected pope picks according to his size to wear out onto the balcony of St. Peter's after his election.
Sixth generation Lorenzo Gammarelli said Francis' call for sobriety — which Esquire credited with subtly signalling "a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church" — hadn't really affected business at all.
"Those who were simple before remain simple today," he said. And vice versa. Speaking in front of the old world shop window decorated with the finest of scarlet cardinal garb, including that fancy red cape, he acknowledged: "Simplicity is not here."