Fashion diplomacy

How politicians project power through fashion, from Donald Trump’s ties to Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un’s suits and Theresa May’s shoes

Presidential outfits are less about brands than style and symbolism, which are used to convey power and authority as well as stability, patriotism and safety. Some are better at pulling it off than others

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 7:07pm

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met Chinese President Xi Jinping in May this year, Kim raised eyebrows with the bold pinstripe fabric on his wide-cut, “updated” buttoned-up suit, with its echoes of 1990s Wall Street.

Xi wore a traditional Western suit-and-tie combination, but his garments were Chinese, made by the Dayang Group.

From hair to suits: style matters when Trump and Kim meet

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, head of Hong Kong’s administration, has a style that references her city’s cultural mix, often wearing Chinese cheongsams paired with Western-style jackets.

According to fashion scholar Dr Anne Peirson-Smith from the City University of Hong Kong, what politicians, presidents and popes wear are “visible expressions of power and the power relations being played out – both playfully and seriously, on a globally mediated stage”.

It’s not so much about brands, but style and symbolism: think US President Donald Trump’s big red tie and trucker cap, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s fancy footwear, President Barack Obama’s easy blue suits and downtime “dad” jeans, and Nelson Mandela’s colourful shirts. Sometimes even popes make fashion headlines.

Female leaders receive greater scrutiny for their style. At a recent gala dinner at Blenheim Palace in England, much was said about May’s glamorous long red gown, less about Trump’s tux.

Peirson-Smith cites other notable examples, “from Margaret Thatcher’s power-dressing-oriented blue suits, pussy bow blouses and power hairdo, to how Angela Merkel’s colour-block suits have brightened up the black-suited German male political brigade”.

While Western leaders usually don a uniform consisting of dark Western suit, white shirt and tie, the styles of powerful political men in other parts of the world can be far more varied. From Mao Zedong’s utilitarian, high-collar, buttoned suits (dubbed the “Mao Suit”) and Fidel Castro’s army fatigues to Saddam Hussein’s headgear, Kim Jong-un’s communist-style suiting and Colonel Gaddafi’s flashy military outfits, political strongmen love a “look” that conveys a message.

On occasion, their styles are embraced by the fashion set. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s traditional lambskin hat and Afghan-style coat was so distinctive that designer Tom Ford dubbed him the “chicest man on the planet today” in 2002. In Africa, many admired Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan for his jaunty fedoras and traditional-style shirts.

Perhaps the most unlikely and reluctant fashion icon was former Pope Benedict, whose red slip-on loafers often made headlines and even landed him on the pages of Esquire as the magazine’s 2007 “Accessoriser of the Year”.

The shoes were rumoured to be from Prada (rather indulgent for a religious leader, earning him the “Prada Pope” nickname) but were later revealed to have been made by a cobbler close to the Vatican.

 Family-run Florentine luxury brand Stefano Ricci made the fabric for current Pope Francis’ silk ceremonial robes. The fabric was made in the brand’s 300-year old Italian antique silk mill, then stitched together for the pontiff by a group of devout nuns. The brand has also dressed Kremlin power players, as well as Nelson Mandela and members of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s family.

“I met with Deng Xiaoping’s family in the early ’90s,” says founder Stefano Ricci. “We visited China several times, the father was crazy for Italian football … Once they threw a big dinner for me in Beijing with 25 Chinese politicians and executives … after those visits to China I decided to open my first store in the world there. People in Europe thought I was crazy.”

When Mandela met Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1996, he flouted the custom for world leaders to wear a suit jacket and tie when meeting the monarch by turning up in a simple, black Stefano Ricci silk shirt and trousers. In Africa, the Stefano Ricci brand went on to sell popular (and very expensive) printed shirts that people called the “Mandela shirt”. That clout with world leaders has proved lucrative for the brand, which reported double-digit revenue growth in 2017.

 Presidential styles can be tricky to navigate. Aside from the obvious power-dressing element, many also try to convey a sense of stability, safety and conservatism. Peirson-Smith says that if fashion is a symbolic system that can “communicate identity, conformity and rebellion”, then politicians, their followers and detractors can add how they dress “to the political agenda as an intentional, strategic way of managing personal style to enhance credibility, win votes and ensure support”.

This is not a new development. “President J.F. Kennedy’s tanned, youthful image in 1960 was said to have played a significant part in his winning over a more dishevelled looking, ailing Richard Nixon at the polls, for example,” she says. 

Like his wife, Trump is partial to European fashion – many of the American president’s wide-cut suits are from Brioni, an Italian luxury label that he has been wearing for over a decade. In contrast, his famous “MAGA” trucker cap is a pointed affirmation to casual, working-class America.

This is a tactic used by many modern male politicians, Peirson-Smith says. Their downtime wardrobes are “a way of demonstrating that they are grounded men of the people by openly wearing ubiquitous items of clothing”.

 US brand Brooks Brothers has dressed at least 40 of the 45 American presidents in its 200-year history, from Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to both Bushes, Nixon, Obama and Trump. At its bicentennial celebrations in China, the brand touted that fact.

“It was Mr Obama’s stylist who came to us, and in the case of Mr Trump we let [his] staff know that we dress every other president, that we felt that was good luck, and they agreed to it,” explained CEO Claudio Del Vecchio during the event in Shanghai.

The brand’s presidential kudos will lend weight to its planned expansion in China, where power plays a big part in menswear.

“It’s not only China, it’s also all Asia, there’s still a lot of opportunity,” Del Vecchio said. 

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“Political figures have across the past 20 years added to the fashion agenda,” Peirson-Smith says, citing their regular appearance on British men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine GQ’s best- and worst-dressed lists. While some are “lauded for their smart, tailored, modern style – think Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Emmanuel Macron,” others, such as former South African president Jacob Zuma, with his garish leather jackets, and British Conservative politician Boris Johnson, with his slobbish, ill-fitting suits, do not come across so well.