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April 24, 2010 12:15 am
If you Google the words “David Cameron” in the US and do not qualify them with “Tory party leader”, you are as likely to pull up a story about a once-promising American designer who went bust as you are the candidate to be Britain’s next prime minister. Though this is clearly a coincidence, it’s a notable one, for Cameron-the-candidate understands the power of clothes. In 2007 British GQ magazine named him as one of the UK’s best-dressed men (its editor Dylan Jones later published a book of “conversations” with the politician); according to another GQ editor Cameron is “a politician who understands the news agenda is set as much by appearance as it is by words”. What’s revealing is how he uses this knowledge.
He has, for example, not chosen to use it to demonstrate his everyman-ness. Aside from an appearance last month for a party speech in Milton Keynes in a Gap flak jacket, Cameron has left the job of mass market dressing to his wife Samantha, creative director of the up-market stationery and leather goods house Smythson, and creative dresser on the hustings, where she happily shows up in outfits from Marks and Spencer (albeit tailor-made), Topshop, and Reiss. It’s a good idea, since when Cameron appeared at a casual event in baggy jeans and untucked black shirt, it left him open to sartorial attack: Shlub! Better to take the slings and arrows of outraged commentary in the armour of a well-tailored suit (see the Richard James number he famously sported during the Tory party conference worth £3,500 – although he only paid £1,181.25 for it).
Similarly, Cameron has not, generally, used his wardrobe to deny his background – Eton, Oxford, and all those words imply – by deliberately eschewing its uniform in favour of, say, a football shirt. He is enough of a student of history to have learnt something from former Tory leader William Hague and the baseball cap that came back to haunt him.
Rather, Cameron uses his clothes to distinguish himself from his main rival, and link himself to the political fairytale across the pond. Witness his propensity for the suit-with-shirt-and-top-button-undone look, a style that separates him from Labour leader Gordon Brown, who never looks happier than with a silk noose around his neck. For a generation that has grown up in the tie-less world of hedge funds and tech start-ups, such self-presentation is the equivalent of John F. Kennedy deciding to toss away his hat at his own inauguration; a literal example of “change” at the top and freedom from past constraints. And for the Tories, it’s a break from the helmet-coiffed Thatcher years – the last time they had any significant image symbolism with which to work.
Such dress risks alienating traditionalists such as Patrick Grant, of Norton & Sons tailors, who describes the no-tie dress code as “bloody appalling”. But then, some of Cameron’s more cuddly conservative policies also risk upsetting the old guard. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, as he is in the many photo-opportunities that involve him on a bike, and which are less about him saying no to a chauffeured car (especially since he is trailed by a Lexus carrying his briefcase) and more a hokey illustration of his “green” platform.
When Cameron does wear a tie, though, it’s usually blue. He wore blue for the first TV debate last week, at the launch of the campaign in April, and at the party conference in October. And while the Tories are traditionally the blue party, it’s worth noting that in the run-up to his election as Tory leader in 2005, Cameron’s ties spanned the colour spectrum from red to green and silver.
But today the blue suit with blue tie and white shirt is the power uniform in Washington, DC; the favourite colour combo of Barack Obama. Though Tories and Democrats are not traditional allies, and Brown was the first European head of state invited to visit President Obama (Brown wearing blue on blue), Cameron’s wardrobe’s echo of the Obama look, theoretically at least, creates a subconscious connection between the American and himself, suggesting the possibility of the same youthful change in Britain as in the US.
Of course, this assumes Britain wants such change, a supposition yet to be proven. What is not, however, is Cameron’s tactical use of dress, down to his announcement that his wife picks his clothes (identify with me, oh non-fashion-forward men!). This has resulted, paradoxically, in his being labelled by pundits “too consumed by appearance”, a slight the Tories are eager to deflect. Witness the claim by press officer Alan Sendorek, when asked about Cameron’s clothing, that he “doesn’t know what he wears”.
Now, presumably, Cameron dresses himself in the morning, which ipso facto implies some degree of awareness and choice – and if, indeed, he does not know, well then what does that say about his attention to detail? Even if semi-joking, at best the statement is disingenuous, but it’s also naive. Clothes are one of the few instant messaging tools that exist outside the tech world; and to recognise this is a sign of intelligence, not superficiality. As an American cultural critic observed of a current pop sensation, she understands these days, “the package is the message”.
Would it really be so terrible to be called the Lady Gaga of UK politics? After all, her approach has taken her to the top.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
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