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Political Fashion Semiotics 101: the implications of politicians’ clothes

This week, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev thrilled and horrified the blogosphere by wearing jeans and a designer blazer to a dinner with Barack Obama, who’d plumped for a jacket and “presidential slacks”.

Were the jeans a nod to America and a sign, perhaps, of Medvedev’s closet pro-westernism?” wondered The Guardian. “Or are they merely an attempt by a 43-year-old world leader to look, well, cool? Medvedev is no stranger to jeans, memorably teaming them with a black bomber jacket when he was elected president last year.”

While someone should definltely start a zany shop called Presidential Slacks, we feel that politics requires more fashion analysis, rather than idiotic talk of policies and party alliances.

Shirtless Vladimir Putin

World leaders go shirtless and fight Siberian tigers in a symbolic display of their political muscle. Shirtlessness is about virility and power  — but it also demonstrates a canny awareness that politicians’ bodies are public property, and blurs the line between pinup and campaign poster. Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama have also set hearts aflutter. HOPE  — we sure do!

Condoleezza Rice’s Fascist Chic

When the former US Secretary Of State wore a black coat with military-style buttons that “blew open in a rather swashbuckling way” to reveal a black pencil skirt and stiletto-heeled boots, the Washington Post was all aflutter, commenting that her clothes “speak of sex and power”. What The Post ached to write, clearly, was “OMG, Ayn Rand fascion!

Malia Obama’s peace T-shirts

Honestly, kids of today! While dad Barack holds endless discussions to convince world leaders to get into nuclear disarmament, daughter Malia gads about Rome in not one but TWO peace-sign T-shirts. Obama, 11, also wears Ray-Ban sunglasses in a symbolic rejection of radiation, and summer shorts to show her disapproval of a nuclear winter.

John Howard’s Tracksuits

The fundamental dagginess of John Howard’s tracksuits is emblematic of a man less concerned with how he appears to others than with remorselessly moving forward. There was an irony too: he wore Australian team tracksuits, yet strode out each morning alone. This was not a consensus politician.

Gentlemen Politicians In The Country

This time-honoured Australian political cliché has grown almost honourable through determined over-use. Those chinos and blue shirts show that politicians have no idea about rural Australia but are nonetheless prepared to keep it on the agenda. John Howard took the country look to ludicrous extremes by adding an Akubra, while Kevin Rudd favours RM Williams boots in both town and country.

Carla Sarkozy’s Couture

Much has been made of the former Mlle Bruni’s elegant Chanel outfits. Much as Sarkozy’s politics have taken the country to the right, so this former model dresses more conservatively. But Carla reinvigorates stuffy old-person looks the same way she and her husband have added youthful glamour to international politics. There are also subtle touches to Carla’s dressing  — flat shoes, for instance, so she doesn’t literally overshadow her husband  — that show elegance, like politics, is about discretion.

Kevin Rudd’s Polo Shirts

It hasn’t got nearly as much attention as his fluoro construction vests (“Kev the builder! Can we fix it? Kev, the builder! We will need to set up a subcommittee to address that. Also, working families”), but Crikey is fascinated by Kevin Rudd’s invariable choice to ‘business casual’ his suits up with a polo shirt on weekends. Casual yet classic, aspirational yet establishment, it’s a sophisticated look from a man keen to placate as many people as possible. We suggest he courts the youth vote by pushing his jacket sleeves up and popping his collar.

Kim Jong-Il’s Bouffant

Poor Kim  — he really only came to international prominence after the golden Gaddafi era of pseudo-military dictatorial chic. Luckily, he still had Michael Jackson as a sartorial role model. Many have pointed to Kim’s famous bouffant as “little man syndrome”. But Kim’s sartorial contradictions echo his political ones. He reveals a desire for bombast and awe that inevitably turns out to be a total bluff.

Mel Campbell is editor and publisher of The Enthusiast.

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    David1
    Posted Thursday, 9 July 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    But Mel you didn’t mention Liz Windsor’s hats. Now there is a lady who cares not about the critics of her upper gear. Flower pots, soup pots, slow simmers, tea pots, casserole pots, boaters, all adorned in flowery bits or feathery fluffies perched upon the royal bonce in gay (woops, bright)colours no matter the weather, be it blowing a gale. Such is the dedication of Phils girl to be a dedicated leader of fashion,be not surprised to see a bunch of bananas perched atop thereof, yay I say perhaps a little monkey or two included, adorning the Windsorian crown. I salute you ma’am, you have gone boldly where no other royal head has gone before.

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