Pomp and pageantry

March 5, 2013

Forget men in tights.

Who could help but notice those men in blue-, yellow-, red- and orange-striped pantaloons and crimson-plumed helmets at Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation ceremonies? The so-called “gala uniform” is ceremonial dress for the Pope’s Swiss Guard, founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II. (During training and night duties, they wear plain blue uniforms and black berets). Julius II was supposedly so taken by Swiss soldiers that he asked them to defend the Vatican. Ever since, Swiss soldiers, who have to be Swiss citizens and trained by the Swiss Army, have been guarding the popes. While they are standing guard in uniform, though, don’t try to touch one.

“You’re only allowed to do that if you’re Swiss,” says Norbert Baerlocher, spokesman for the Swiss Embassy.

Among their official duties are accompanying the pope on his travels, protecting the College of Cardinals during the papal transitions and guarding entrances to Vatican City .

Their dress — in the traditional colors of the Medici — dates back to the heady days of the Renaissance and a once-powerful family and papacy, according to Susan Hanssen, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.

Designed specifically for each guard member by Vatican tailors, the wool uniforms are destroyed when they retire, usually after a period of between five to 10 years of work, during which time they are required to live in the Vatican.

And if you think pantaloons look silly, “Wearing pants only becomes customary during the French Revolution. Prior to that, gentlemen wore breeches; pants were for workers,” Hanssen said. Military dress before the the 20th century was for parading and marching out to battle, not for warfare as we know it today. The Swiss guards still carry a halberd or lance, a combination weapon that can be used to bar an attack — or to cut off your enemy’s head.

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