Follow the leaders

Whoever wins the American presidential race next Tuesday, one thing is certain: he will accept his election in a single-breasted dark suit, white shirt and (it’s 99 per cent sure) red or blue tie. How do we know this?

Because, as Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress, a new book by Dominique and François Gaulme, makes clear, “clothing and textiles were developed in all their complexity not to protect the wearer from the climate but, rather, to communicate, even more clearly than in writing, the social organisation and distribution of political power”. The above suit, shirt and tie ensemble is the de facto look of political power in 21st-century America. Hence we can assume it will be assumed. As the Gaulmes’ book shows, it was always thus.

From Ramses to the Romans, Louis XIV to Hitler, and on to the Kennedys and today, Power & Style traces the evolution of power dressing, explaining its whys as much as its whats. In the process, its authors also demonstrate the way in which much of what we see today has roots in the past; how the sartorial issues we struggle with in our current leadership have echoes throughout history.

Think that the lip service being paid to issues of “made in America” and “made in Italy” are new political footballs? Not so: Napoleon “wanted to boost the sale of French fabrics” and “had been known to tear Josephine’s and Hortense’s dresses when he thought they were made of muslin from India”. Think that the blue power tie is a recent phenomenon? How shortsighted: according to the Gaulmes, the first monarch to make blue a “power” colour was Louis XI, who used it in the 13th century to reject “ostentation” when he went off on the Crusades, while at the same time telegraphing the fact the French monarchy was leading the charge.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Think it’s an accident that Obama and Romney seem so sartorially interchangeable? Though many leaders did attempt to distinguish themselves from their rivals through dress, including Louis XIV and Charles II, American politicians since Woodrow Wilson have emphasised the democratic nature of their dress: they want, say the Gaulmes, to look like everyone else.

The historical connections are by far the most interesting part of the book. The reader’s frustration comes from the authors’ decision to focus on the leaders they feel precipitated clothing change, which means a largely western male fashion bias (non-western dictators such as Mao appear as an exception, because they influenced the rise of the power uniform). The authors do nod to a number of African and Asian leaders, but it is generally in the context of their use of native costume to communicate their point of difference in global situations and their sense of heritage (see Nicéphore Soglo, former president of Benin, who wears traditional, brightly coloured patterned textiles).

John F Kennedy

And though the Gaulmes acknowledge the dearth of women in their pages by explaining “women’s access to legitimate political power is very recent” and “women who used their charms to manipulate monarchs ... should not be confused with women who truly held absolute power”, it’s hard not to wonder why they didn’t explore the reign of Elizabeth I, for whom appearance was a key part of authority, or that of Angela Merkel, whose trouser suits are much more significant than those of French politician Elisabeth Guigou, whom they quote late in the book.

Still, the fact that this book exists as a serious look at the question of leaders and dress has a certain value in itself: though we are happy to acknowledge that leaders of yore felt dress played a role in the theatre of their regimes, there is a peculiarly modern tendency to downplay the use of clothing in political life. This book proves how disingenuous that is. Bet the guy who gets voted in on Tuesday – not to mention David Cameron, François Hollande, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping – knows it too.

‘Power and Style: A World History of Politics and Dress’, by Dominique Gaulme and François Gaulme (Flammarion, £50)

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