As it happens, the vast majority of my friends were Hillary Clinton supporters. Throughout Clinton’s political career, she made a point of wearing black pantsuits with colourful shirts. She called it her ‘uniform’. During her bid for the presidency, the pantsuit became a symbol of her campaign: you could find cartoon pantsuit graphics on everything from lapel pins to bumper stickers.
All of this points to a somewhat obvious truth: how you look matters. It affects how people perceive you, and it affects whether people will vote for you. In her 2017 memoir What Happened, Clinton explains why she chose the pantsuit. The world has become accustomed to every male politician looking the same, she argues. Politicians tend to opt less for ‘fashionable’ and more for ‘consistent’, their choice of tie the only opportunity for individuality. The pantsuit helped Clinton fit into this predominantly male ecosystem, substituting a colourful tie for a colourful inner shell. In other words, Clinton chose the pantsuit because it was boring.
And indeed, it was meant to be boring. When politicians stand out for their outfits, it is rarely to their benefit; recall George Osborne’s ‘trendy’ haircut in 2013 or Theresa May’s Frida Kahlo bracelet. Politicians aren’t often admired for their fashion sense. Instead, they are expected to dress and act professionally. In the leadup to the 2016 Presidential election, this is what I thought about Clinton.
But then Hilary Clinton lost the election. She lost to Donald Trump, an orange buffoon with a bad comb-over and an unkempt suit. She lost to someone whose rhetoric consisted of crude jokes and slurs, whose wife never wears the sleeves of her jackets because she never needs to use her hands, whose whole campaign verged on the satirical.
Until recently, I thought it was a fluke. Americans are crazy, I thought. Being one myself, I should know. But then came the 2019 general election, and Boris Johnson and the Conservatives recorded a landslide win, making the UK the second country to hand power to a leader whose hair had fanfiction.
So how, I wondered, did Boris Johnson win with such a lack of professional style? But then I realised: Johnson didn’t win in spite of his scruffy appearance. He won because of it.
Take Johnson’s opponent, Jeremy Corbyn. Famous for his old polo-necked sweaters and black paperboy hat, Corbyn has long used his clothes as part of his brand, and though opponents criticise his ‘scruffy’ appearance, Labour voters love him for his authenticity. Contrast this with Andy Burnham, who, as you may recall from the twitter uproar, has been known to wear Armani suits. Corbyn’s dress emanates consistency and dependability.
Though he would probably deny it, Jeremy Corbyn is famous for his fashion. He once said of Parliament: “It’s not a fashion parade.” It is rather ironic, then, that in a sea of normalcy he has been one of very few politicians to connect to voters through his image – a down-to-earth, anti-fashion everyman wearing mismatched suits and jumpers his mum made.
But in the most recent general election, Corbyn took a turn. Through his years as a career politician, his jumpers and polos have been replaced by navy suits and red ties. He even donned a bespoke, one-of-a-kind suit whose pinstripes had stitched into them his motto: “for the many, not the few”. The irony was clearly lost on him.
Johnson, in contrast, is a perpetual state. His jacket hangs open, his tie is rarely done up, and his hair is always a mess. Yet none of this works to his detriment. Much like Trump, Johnson’s attire makes him relatable. Rather than coming across as a contemptuous political elite, Johnson acts and dresses like us.
We live in the age of scruffy politics, where being relatable is more important than being professional. Now that the put-together look of the pantsuit has given way to the poorly done tie, how our politicians dress is more important than ever.