Sunday, March 17, 2013

Luxarazzi 101: Privilège du Blanc

With the inauguration of Pope Francis coming up on Tuesday, it is time to have a look at what the leading royal ladies, including Luxembourg's very own Grand Duchess, will wear while at the Vatican.

Once upon a time there was a very strict dress code when being granted an audience with the pope. While men were required to wear a morning coat or white tie and tails, women had to wear full length black dresses and black veils, also known as mantillas, with one big exception: women with the privilège du blanc.

Even though these rules are no longer obligatory and most men wear normal business suits when meeting the pope as formal dress is now usually reserved for diplomatic audiences, the black and white rule is still upheld as a tradition by many. They won't throw you out of the Vatican if you turn up in another colour but you should be prepared for a media backlash if you decide to turn up in white without having the privilège du blanc. (Hi there, Cherie Blair!)

But who are those women who were allowed to wear white when visiting the Pope at the Vatican?
Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte and Queen Sofia excercising
their privilege at the inauguration of Pope John Paul II
(Photo: Hola)
Traditionally this "privilege of the white" was given to the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, the Queens of Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Bavaria and Poland, the Grand Duchesses of Luxembourg and Lithuania, a few German Princesses as well as female Captain Regents of San Marino. They all had in common that they either were a Most Catholic Monarch / Most Catholic Majesty or the spouse thereof.

Simply being the wife of a Catholic monarch did not mean having the privilège du blanc, cases in point being the princesses of Liechtenstein and Monaco. (Yeah I know, we will get to that later on.) And even if you had it and were allowed to wear white in the presence of the pope, you did not have to, case in point Luxembourg's late Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte who also at times chose to wear black.
Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte
with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in July 2000.
(Photo: Luxemburger Wort)
The Latin title of Rex Catholicissimus had been given to the above mentioned Catholic monarchs at different points in time as in the eyes of the church they embodied Catholic principles in their personal lives as well as their state policies. Much like the ruling title itself, the style of a Most Catholic Majesty was hereditary unless taken away by the pope.

Fast forward into the 21st century, most of those families whose heads had originally been entitled to the privilège du blanc are now living in republics and thus usually don't excercise their privilege anymore. In fact only three Most Catholic Majesties still remain: The King of Spain, the King of the Belgians and - even though not technically a majesty - the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

This means that only four women in the world have the right to wear white in the presence of the pope: Queen Sofia of Spain (as the wife of King Juan Carlos), Queen Paola of the Belgians (as the wife of King Albert II), Queen Fabiola of Belgium (as the wife of the late King Baudouin) and Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg (as the wife of Grand Duke Henri). It must be one of the most exclusive clubs in the world!
Beatification of Pope John Paul II:
While Grand Duchess Maria Teresa wears white, the Princess of Asturias,
the Princess of Liechtenstein as well as princesses Margaretha, Marie-Astrid
and Maria-Anunciata wear black. Meanwhile all the men apart from Prince
Nikolaus, who wears white tie and tail, are in business suits.
 (Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images Europe / Zimbio)
But then in January this year Prince Albert and Princess Charlène of Monaco visited the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI and the Princess shocked the royal watching scene by wearing white. Didn't she know? Was it a faux pas? Why didn't anyone tell her? The Vatican's press office soon issued the statement that "in accordance with prescribed ceremonial of the Vatican for Catholic sovereigns, the princess was allowed to dress in white".

What had happened? Nobody - at least in the public - really knows. It seems that the privilège du blanc has been extended to the Princess of Monaco; which traditionally would have meant that her husband must be a Most Catholic Majesty who represents Catholic values in both his personal life and his state policies. Ermm, yeah... Well... Anyways... Maybe the Vatican just got a little more relaxed with their rules.

This Tuesday will give us a chance to see whether Princess Charlène will excercise her new found privilege once again and whether - provided that she attends - Princess Marie of Liechtenstein was also granted with the privilège du blanc.


  1. There's a funny story about this. Back when the dress code was quite strict a group of journalists were going to meet the pope. After the men all got dressed in morning suits and the women in black with mantillas, one of the men sighed and said, "Sometimes I think it would be easier to just blindfold the Pope."

  2. I have a question: Must the wife of a Catholic monarch herself be Catholic to be entitled to the privilège du blanc?

  3. I have honestly no idea but it is a very interesting question. I don't know whether there has ever been a protestant wife (who stayed so after her wedding) to a monarch who was a most Catholic majesty though and thus whether the Vatican ever needed to consider making a decision about such a situation.

  4. There where the Queens Karoline,. Therese and Marie of bavaria who remained protestant. Queen karoline later converted to the catholic faith but it was after thed eath of her husband so during his riegn she was protestant. But no Idea if one of the three Queens ever meet a Pope.