Grey days for politicians

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Recently, I got an email from a reader asking: “Do you think things would have been different in Italy if Silvio Berlusconi had let his hair go naturally grey?”

This is actually not a flippant question – and the answer is yes. Not because Berlusconi’s hair has any effect whatsoever on the Italian economy, but because his hair is (or was) a pretty neat expression of Berlusconi’s approach to life and governing, which increasingly seemed to be: if it doesn’t go your way, fake it.

Hair not as thick or youthful looking as you want? Dye it. Debt rising? Insist it will be OK. The hair was, as they say in poker, a tell.

Indeed, Berlusconi’s whole look – double-breasted suits, thick locks, tie with mega knot – was almost cartoonishly master of the universe. Half the reason Italians shrugged and rolled their eyes at Berlusconi’s antics for so long is they expected them. How could you not? He acted the way he dressed. It’s not like he pretended to be anything different; what you saw was what you got. If Berlusconi had let his hair go grey and revealed it in all its thinning glory, he would have been a different kind of person, and a different kind of leader. He could even have been a technocrat – at least if the recently appointed Italian cabinet is anything to go by.

Mario Monti and his 12 new ministers might not have been wearing literal uniforms on their swearing-in but the overall impression was pretty uniform: greying hair almost everywhere or, if not greying or white, disappearing (see Monti, minister for tourism and sport Piero Gnudi, minister for European affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi, minister for territorial cohesion Fabrizio Barca, minister of international cooperation Andrea Riccardi – enough said); wire-rimmed glasses (Monti, Gnudi, Milanesi, Barca, Riccardi); normal-sized tie knots (same). Yes, there were three women but two had almost identical, mumsy Barbara Bush-like strings of pearls: minister of justice Paola Sevrino and interior minister Anna Maria Cancellieri (they also both wore matching scooped neck white blouses under their dark suits).

The net visual, in its sheer sartorial dullness, was a very clear statement of priorities: work first. If ever anyone wanted to know why we associate technocrats with boring, well, there was their argument.

This is a stereotype, no question, but the truth is that presentation is largely about stereotype: the assumptions we make about how someone looks are based on gross generalisations we all share as received wisdom, and the choices we make about our own presentation are based on the same. Not to admit that is to miss part of the point.

After all, this is the sort of look that in the past would have been roundly criticised in a world leader, a role we generally like to be held by someone who seems better than the norm in every way: taller, more hirsute, more perfectly pressed. The Monti crew, however, look largely just like the norm (though they hopefully think above the norm) – which is OK because of what it implies about their not being managed, and not being part of the usual political order.

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With the exception of Corrado Passera, who was chief of the Intesa Sanpaolo banking group, and Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, the former ambassador to the United States, the image the new cabinet members convey is one of having spent almost no time considering or burnishing their image. Which is not to say it’s no image at all.

It’s the image of no image (apologies to the US essayist George WS Trow), or the image of a country that can’t afford to spend time worrying about image. It’s comforting. Unthreatening. Reassuring. Evocative of industry, in every sense of the word, from the grey of steel (hair) to the sleep sacrifice implied by large bags beneath the eyes. And it’s the image, apparently, we want.

The question for me is how long we will want it. Other countries have experienced such moments of interim image cleansing with varying degrees of success (John Major leaps to mind in the UK, sandwiched between the charisma machines of Thatcher and Blair, as does Harry S Truman’s folksy shtick between Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower) but they tend not to last terribly long. In the end, we revert to electoral form.

So, even in Italy, even as they welcome the technocrats and applaud their appointment, speculation bubbles up about who might come in when the non-politicians go out. Among the favourites: Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman of Ferrari, known for his longish locks, pocket handkerchiefs, penchant for handmade suits and inclusion on multiple “best dressed” lists.

Think of it as a modern political twist on St Augustine’s famous plea to God, as described in his “Confessions”: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Give us grey hair and rumpled suits, but just for a while.

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