Dressed to Rule: When Politics and Fashion Collide - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Dressed to Rule: When Politics and Fashion Collide

Dressed to Rule: When Politics and Fashion Collide

By Carl Pettit

Pres. Kennedy's Inaugural Address; Front (L-R): Mrs. Eisenhower, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Justice Earl Warren, John F. Kennedy (C), Lyndon Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, John Sparkman, The Trumans, Sam Rayburn.
SourceFrank Scherschel/Getty


Because fashion choices can hint at what’s going on in the minds of the political elite.

By Carl Pettit

When hatters, mad or otherwise, gather to lament the demise of men’s headgear, John F. Kennedy’s name invariably comes up. Back in the day, a gentleman appearing in public without a hat was scandalous, but when JFK attended his own inauguration without one — so the legend goes — he started a trend that destroyed an entire industry.

Kennedy actually wore a stovepipe hat during much of his inauguration but removed it when he took the oath of office. But the die was cast, and Kennedy, a president who preferred going bareheaded, was forever labeled as the man who murdered the top hat. 

Gettyimages 53372917

John F. Kennedy, in his top hat, walks alongside wife Jacqueline Kennedy, to his inauguration.

Source Paul Schutzer/Getty

When it comes to women’s political fashion etiquette, Dr. Andreas Behnke, an associate professor in international political theory at the University of Reading, points to Marie Antoinette. The French Dauphine and later queen “opened up the dress code for women in France significantly” with her muslin dress, Behnke says, and by cooperating with “the foremost fashion designer in Paris, Rose Bertin,” set the stage for future first ladies’ relationships with influential fashion designers — minus the guillotining.

Marie antoinette in muslin dress

Marie Antoinette in a muslin dress.

Source Public Domain

Nehru’s jacket, with its distinctive collar and buttoned front, was an adaptation of an indigenous Indian garment.

Valerie Cumming, author of Understanding Fashion History

Jacqueline Kennedy revolutionized “the appearance of American first ladies by being young, chic and actually interested in fashion,” says Valerie Cumming, a dress and social historian, and author of Understanding Fashion History. She describes Jackie as “French by choice, American by necessity,” who wowed the world with her neat pillbox hats and modish clothing selections. “In a sense, she anticipated Michelle Obama,” Behnke adds, “dressing very consciously to express the youth and novelty of her husband’s administration.”

Queen Victoria, a widow in never-ending mourning, “sent sales of black crepe through the ceiling,” which made her grieving countenance “instantly recognizable” in ways the finest courtly attire never could, Cumming says. Eva Perón’s pristine hairdos and penchant for French couture added an extra layer of elegance to her charismatic persona, while Queen Elizabeth’s epic hat selections — despite often being the target of comedic prodding — have helped shape her public identity. 

Male leaders also have left their stylistic stamp on global society from the clothing they’ve donned — or, in some cases, the garments they’ve shunned. Dictators like Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin eschewed swankier duds for rugged, quasi-military clothes associated with the values of eternal change and revolution, “rather than settled bourgeois values,” Cumming says. 

Mao Zedong made the Chinese tunic suit (the Mao suit) internationally famous. The Sam Browne belt with shoulder strap worn by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini is forever tied to these brutal dictators, while Stalin’s easily identifiable button-up gray tunic and pipe spoke to his particular brand of martial sartorial elegance. Che Guevara’s beret and stoically photogenic mug were co-opted as a popular fashion statement for anyone wishing to ironically announce their nonconformist bona fides through their choice of T-shirt. 

President john f. kennedy attends arrival ceremonies for jawaharlal nehru, prime minister of india

JFK exits Air Force One ahead of Nehru, Nehru’s daughter Indira and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Source Abbie Rowe [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other voguish heads of state, like India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Teddy Roosevelt, have opted for less overtly jingoistic or militaristic garb. “Nehru’s jacket, with its distinctive collar and buttoned front, was an adaptation of an indigenous Indian garment,” Cumming explains. It cleverly replaced European clothing with something more Indian, and has now become a unisex fashion classic.

Roosevelt’s chameleonlike clothing selections helped redefine his image several times — in true Lady Gaga style — from a glasses-wearing weakling to a rough-and-tumble cowboy to a dapper, progressive-leaning American president to a macho big-game hunter. Edmund Morris, in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, refers to Roosevelt’s various modes of dress, from his “cowboy fashion” to his more refined “sartorial splendor,” and how he dressed the part of a “lady’s man.” A friend from Harvard, Owen Wister, even took a dig, noting the future president’s “dandified appearance.”

Theodore roosevelt clothing

President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (left) and Col. Theodore Roosevelt

Source Public Domain

And while modern male world leaders generally have had it easier than their female counterparts, with less to worry about when it came to wardrobe, hairstyles and makeup, some powerful women have opted for more muted clothing as well. Margaret Thatcher’s power suits and comfortable heels are a perfect example of toning things down. She wasn’t particularly flashy — nor is German Chancellor Angela Merkel — yet Thatcher still managed to be stylishly distinctive, accentuating her down-to-business look with her trademark pearls. 

Thatcher  Reagan walking

Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom review troops on the south lawn during the arrival ceremony.

Source (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Hollywood, New York and Paris, clothing is a big deal; in the world of politics, less so. Most members of the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament or China’s National People’s Congress steer clear of tailored flair. But from Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and Putin’s penchant for shirtless horseback riding, to the stylish military attire of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the designers that American first ladies or the Queen of Jordan favor, and the vibrant kurtas (long loose-fitting shirts) and hats donned by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the clothing a leader puts on — or takes off (thanks, Putin) — can help define their public persona.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society,” Mark Twain once said. And while a simple business suit might suffice for bureaucratic cogs, for those rare few who rise to the top, the right fashion choice — from a fancy hat to a red baseball cap with a catchy slogan — can help cement their power, and their legacy.

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