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Just how radical are Pope Francis's black shoes?

Any fashionista worth her salt knows the importance of shoes, so perhaps it's not surprising that speculation has already surfaced about what Pope Francis's choice of footwear could mean for his papacy. The New York Times reports:

[Francis] wore simple black shoes and an ordinary wristwatch with a thick black band to his first Mass as pontiff.... In an ancient institution where style often translates into substance, Francis, in his first 24 hours as pope, has dramatically shifted the tone of the papacy. Whereas Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, was a theologian who favored red loafers, ermine-lined cloaks and erudite homilies, reviving papal fashions from centuries past, Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, appeared Thursday to be sending a message of radical humility.

But just how radical are black shoes? (After all, the innovations of new popes are often overstated.) While red shoes have historically been the papal footwear of choice, stretching back centuries (see the image on left of Pope Pius VII's slippers from 1808), they haven't always been as extravagant as Benedict's beloved red shoes.

In 1969, for instance, Pope Paul VI abolished the ornate shoe buckles favored by cardinals and past pontiffs. And John Paul I, who was fond of the motto "humilitas," continued to don plain red-leather shoes.

John Paul II, meanwhile, opted for a pair of ordinary brown shoes. But Pope Benedict XVI, a fan of tradition, restored the red leather. It remains to be seen whether the new precedent-setting pope -- the first Francis, Latin American, and Jesuit -- will also be the first pope in recent history to regularly wear black shoes. If he does, it may say more about the changes in store for the Catholic Church than you might think.

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Matt Cardy/AFP/Getty Images

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