It was around this time last year that Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s absurd Austrian fashionista alter ego, offered the following advice to Gordon Brown: he should get “a total makeover. He needs a fake tan, he needs to wear some tight slacks.”
Had the prime minister taken his suggestion, it certainly would have made the series of leader debates that ended on Thursday even more interesting than they (surprisingly) turned out to be. Certainly, it might have given his opponents pause.
Instead, however, Brown stayed true to form and modelled his now-familiar look:dark suit, white shirt and pink/lilac/red tie. Just as he has decided to make his real-life experience and approach to government his selling point, so Brown has made his clothing a uniform reflecting efficiency and lack of artifice. “I deal with these issues every day,” he began in response to a question about security during one debate, a statement in which it is hard not to see the strategic spinning hand of his advisers: make the negative (same old, same old) a positive: I know what works! In negotiations, as in my wardrobe!
It’s not that Brown thinks clothes don’t matter – his Timothy Everest tailor-made upgrade when he moved into Number 10 shows he is aware he needs to dress the prime ministerial part. But for him, dress is less communication tool than comfort zone; a consistent hallmark, with all the good, and perhaps ill, that implies at this particular point in time.
Go back as far as his days at the University of Edinburgh, and (long lush-hair-to-make-Brüno-jealous aside) there Brown is: rumpled dark jacket, white shirt and tie. In the late 1990s, as he and Tony Blair took the helm of the Labour party, this sartorial signature was refined: two-button rumpled dark suit, white shirt and tie the red of Labour – and of Wall Street financiers. Rumour had it Brown had five identical versions of the same clothes, one for each day of the working week. It was the civilian equivalent of a military costume: straightforward and practical. Safe.
This is why Brown looks so uncomfortable when he is “off-duty”: out of his armour, he is exposed and open to attack. Take the beige sports jacket he was photographed wearing on holiday in Southwold in 2008: an aide was forced to admit, “It was an embarrassing attempt at dressing down which did not work.”
It’s also part of the reason why, until he got to Number 10, Brown refused to wear white, or even black, tie to events that specified white tie: though a uniform in itself, it wasn’t his uniform. It’s why GQ magazine voted him one of the UK’s worst-dressed men last year (well, that also could have been because editor Dylan Jones has, well, what Americans might call a jones for David Cameron). It may be why he has anointed Gieves & Hawkes, who make uniforms for the armed forces and once clad the Duke of Wellington and Churchill, his current tailor of choice.
And it is one of the reasons that even as the 1990s segued into the Noughties and Labour politics got murkier, with party infighting, recession and war, Brown has stayed with the same uniform, give or take a tie colour. According to Timothy Everest, he ordered four pairs of trousers for every suit – the better to make his chosen look last. As sartorial symbolism, it suggests steadfastness, faith in his own principles and a readiness to fight his corner. That’s the best-case scenario, anyway.
The problem comes when the electorate does not have the same faith, and decides to fight back. Then Brown may be stuck in a navy, white and red-toned hole of his own making.
Unless, of course, his ties make a rescue rope. There, red has evolved more often than not into a gentle, friendly lavender (partly because, as Tony Blair sought to shore up his position vis-à-vis the Iraq war and the two struggled to spin their relationship to the public, Blair started sporting a lot of purple, with Brown following as a member of the team), which has occasionally veered into pink, the colour of serenity and sweetness, as during the launch of the general election campaign. If ever Brown goes on a walkabout these days, whether to a school or hospital, odds are he’ll do it in a soft-tone tie. And though occasionally he receives pot-shots for his propensity for royal purple, he looks less majestic and more New Man in mauve.
Is this silly? Well, yes: ties can only take you so far, and Brown is clearly, in today’s context, the Old Man. At the same time, it is such a transparent effort to smooth his rougher edges that it’s kind of sweet. Which is not the same thing as effective.
Purple may be newish for Brown but it is also a combination of ye olde red and blue – witness the Lib Dems’ rather clever “Labservative” campaign. And this is, as political pundits and the leaders of the opposition parties keep pointing out, an election about change. So sporting a wardrobe whose main message is about familiarity and consistency may, paradoxically, be a rather large risk.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor