Is there still anybody who is not convinced that fashion matters in politics? The trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in a Federal Court in Alexandria, VA should certainly convince any political observer that such wilful ignorance is no longer justified. Indeed, it is now clearly relevant to the law too, with the prosecution describing in great detail his sartorial choices and expenditure – a cool $1.3 million in six years – in order to make their case against him. Regrettably, the presiding judge seems to be rather averse to the argument, proudly (I do still hope jokingly) proclaiming his vestiary ignorance beyond Men’s Wearhouse and its $199.99 suit sales (price correct at time of writing, no endorsement intended). Good thing that federal judges wear robes…
I trust we have all seen by now the $15.000 ostrich skin jacket and the $18.000 python leather jacket.
All images from Special Counsel’s Office
They are in a sense just the highlights of a rather peculiar sartorial arsenal that includes quite boxy plaid and pinstripe suits, reminiscent of what characters wore in The Sopranos. (And by the way, these photos tell me that the FBI agents or whoever took these photos does not care about fashion all that much. It’s a rather sad way to present evidence of an allegedly debauched life-style).
The critical assessment and frequent condemnation of sartorial choices and strategies have of course been a long-standing part of political discourse, and, as one might expect, mostly directed at women. When First Lady Michelle Obama during a vacation in 2009 disembarked from a helicopter in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers/trainers, fashionistas went into red alert mode. As summarised by Robin Givhan, ‘the first lady can’t be – nor should she be – just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. More dramatically, in 2012 the wives of the UK and German UN ambassadors launched an internet-based petition on Change.org in which they tried to shame Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, into a more active role in ending the civil war in Syria. Clearly, to no avail… Male politicians and leaders have usually been exempted from such critical review of their sartorial strategies. The link between sartorial signifier and political signified – disrespect for the office, moral corruption – are not as firmly established here. But significantly, exceptions apply: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing jeans just a bit too tight, President Obama in a tan suit in 2014, and of course the (in)famous take-down of Donald Trump by Robin Givhan. So the ‘sartorial deconstruction’ of Paul Manafort further amplifies this trend. We might say that these gentlemen ‘mispronounced’ a sartorial seme, or meaning-carrying entity, while still referring to its recognisable vocabulary. A dodgy suit colour, a jacket a size too big, a tie much too long, are still recognisable as familiar transgressions of the Washington sartorial code. What sets Mr Manafort apart is his use of the wrong sartorial vocabulary. Whatever he tried to signify with python leather and ostrich skin does not fit with the sartorially quite conservative Washington power crowd. But the focus on his idiosyncratic fashion choices makes it possible to ‘exoticise’ (apropos python and ostrich) and thereby ostracise him from a culture of which he as a lobbyist was an all too typical member.
In one way it is good to see that male politicians and operatives are increasingly held accountable for their fashion choices, something female politicians have been experienced for so long. So let’s demand the same care and competence that female politicians put into their daily sartorial choices from their fellow male colleagues! There are books aplenty which teach men the basics of the male sartorial code. Suit jackets should not be quite as long as the shirt sleeve underneath, and a tie should not dangle below the belt. And no striped shirt with a striped jacket. Very basic, very simple rules. All that is required is some attention.
On the other hand, fashion here again becomes ‘ideological’ in that the focus on the peculiarities of his wardrobe masks and distracts from the fact that Mr Manafort was a typical Washington insider and anything but ‘exotic’. As a Washington Post article’s headline recently stated, ‘America is Swarming with Paul Manaforts’. We should not let his miserable fashion choices distract us from that.