While Vatican City wasn’t established as its own sovereign nation until the 1920s, Vatican has been at the center of the Catholic Church since about the 4th century A.D. Since then, the Catholic Church has kept many traditions intact.
One of those traditions is pointed at the way women are required to dress when meeting with the Pope. The Pope changes over the years, but women have always been required to dress a certain way, no matter who holds the position.
For centuries, women have had to wear long, black dresses with high collars covering the majority of their bodies when meeting the Pope. A black mantilla (a silk or lace hair scarf) should also be worn over their heads.
This rule is true for almost every woman, including monarchs who don’t even practice the religion. For example, the reigning Queen of England is not Catholic, yet she still follows these rules.
Michelle Obama was also seen wearing traditional black clothing when she and former president Barack Obama met the Pope.
The clothing may look like depressing, mourning clothes to those who don’t understand all the traditions of the religion, but the black of these women’s clothing is not meant to represent mourning at all. Black actually signifies humility and piety. Long story short, it signifies that these women obey the Catholic Church by showing reverence to the Pope.
However, there are a few women who are allowed to wear white in front of the Pope. This ability to do so is known as Le privilège du blanc. The phrase is French, but it is translated to “The privilege of white” in English.
The term can only be applied to a reigning Catholic queen or princess. The Pope himself gives these women Le privilège du blanc. The Catholic monarch must be in good Catholic standing – as decided by the Church – and also be married to another Catholic monarch.
The Pope may also give dispensation to other Catholic monarchs for Le privilège du blanc who may not fit into these requirements.
Currently, there are only seven women in the whole world who have been bestowed Le privilège du blanc.
1. Queen Sofia of Spain
Queen Sofia of Spain ascended the throne when her husband, Juan Carlos I of Spain, became king in 1975. Spain has historically been ruled by Catholic monarchs.
Juan Carlos abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Felipe VI, in 2014. After her husband’s abdication, Queen Sofia is still bestowed Le privilège du blanc.
2. Queen Letizia of Spain
Queen Letizia of Spain is Queen Sofia’s daughter-in-law. When Juan Carlos I abdicated in favor of his son Felipe VI in 2014, Felipe’s wife Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano became Queen of Spain. Ascending the throne with Felipe VI gave Queen Letizia Le privilège du blanc.
3. Queen Paola of Belgium
Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria became Queen of Belgium when her husband, Albert II, became king. Like Queen Sofia of Spain, becoming the queen monarch granted Queen Paola the privilege to wear white when meeting the Pope.
4. Queen Mathilde of Belgium
Similarly to Queen Sofia and Queen Letizia of Spain, Queen Mathilde of Belgium ascended the throne when her father-in-law, King Albert II, abdicated his throne in favor of his son King Philippe in 2013. Ascending the throne has also given her the privilege to wear white when in the presence of the Pope.
5. Maria Teresa, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg
Maria Teresa became the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg and was bestowed the title of “Her Royal Highness” after her husband’s accession in 2000. She, too, is now allowed Le privilège du blanc.
6. Princess of Naples
The Her Royal Highness, Princess of Naples is also allowed Le privilège du blanc after being given dispensation from Pope Pius XI in 1929. The privilege was bestowed to the House of Savoy.
The most recent Princess of Naples, Marina, Head of the House of Savoy, used the privilege in 2003 during the Mass for the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s birthday.
7. Princess Charlene of Monaco
Finally, we have Princess Charlene of Monaco. She also received dispensation from the Pope. Pope Benedict XVI bestowed Le privilège du blanc to Princess Charlene in 2013.