The Language of Dress as Practiced by Four Current World Leaders

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It’s a game that my wife and I play after work. As we settle down to watch the evening news, unsolicited I make observations about the dress of male newscasters or the pundits being interviewed. Something in the line of, “Can you see what’s wrong with the lapel on his suit?”

She is not fooled by the invitation to comment. But she humors me, almost always making a suggestion about what is incorrect about his outfit. If it has been a really long day of real estate she will simply say, “Tell me, sweetie.”

It’s usually a jacket collar pulling away from the neck, or the wrong combination of stripes on tie and suit, a silly spread collar on the shirt or a stingy choice of lapel width. Typically, poor choices by busy people who care about how they look but have neither the luxury of time nor a team of stylists to tell them what to wear and how to wear it.

What about those who do? Let’s take a look at four of the world’s leaders.

EMMANUEL MACRON

Just a few months ago, it was a late Sunday afternoon following an open house in River Oaks, I came home to see Emmanuel Macron, president of France, on the television screen wearing a closely cut navy blue suit over a plain crisp white shirt and a solid midnight blue tie.

There it was, for all the world to see, the utterly explicit power costume for modern man. I was transfixed by the outfit despite the fact that, for almost 30 minutes, Macron irritatingly provided Olympian pronouncements non-stop about everything from COVID-19 to foreign policy. It’s a French thing.

Oddly enough, French men have a reputation for being not particularly well dressed. While a certain segment of society has that BCBG thing going on – a sort of French preppiness – and the top-tier bankers and politicians are well turned out, in the general the French male population doesn’t seem to care.

Mr. Macron, however, not only dresses well but he does so specifically and deliberately. He wears a uniform … or is it a costume? And he is rarely observed without it.

The single-breasted navy-blue suit with notched lapels fits perfectly, if a little snug; the neat collar of his white shirt is spread, but not exaggeratedly; and his matte dark blue tie, at times verging on the skinny side, is almost always skewed a little to the right.

The combination of Macron’s clothing and the message it is designed to convey is in the direct line of descent from George “Beau” Brummell.

Brummell is often lazily dismissed as a mere dandy. Brummell was, in fact, the architect and arbiter of neoclassical minimalism in men’s dress. He was master of the triumvirate of blue, black and white. His discipline was to focus on the strictures of fit, form and honest materials. He created the modern style for men. He died in exile in France, both penniless and insane. But don’t let that put you off.

The Brummellian look says something. The clothes communicate the simple but sweeping message of power, aggression (the good kind) and confidence. And while the clothes are saying something in general, any deviation says something about the man wearing them. A chink in the armor.

JOSEPH BIDEN

Joe Biden, the president of the United States of America, is another adherent to the Brummellian style, and it was fascinating to watch the recent sartorial evolution from his candidacy for president, to being the president-elect, and then finally taking office as president of the United States.

He almost always kept to blue, black and white.

As a candidate it was open-necked solid blue or striped shirts, odd blue jackets and odd trousers (non-matching), typically with black dress loafers.

When he became president-elect, he suddenly appeared with a tie on all official occasions, together with a suit, and the shirts tended to be solid blue with barrel cuffs.

Finally, as president his suits were solid and dark, the ties predominantly solid and the shirts white and with French cuffs held together with cufflinks. The shoes are now derbys. With the exception of the shoes, this is as formal as you can get for everyday wear.

Most of Biden’s suits are made by a local tailor in Wilmington, and the fit is excellent. It helps that he has a trim and athletic figure. There is little remarkable about the suits or shirt or ties. And that is how it should be.

While we are on this side of the Atlantic, I should mention that, despite all the fawning coverage of him in the glossies, I am not including Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau as one of the power-dressers. He just seems to be having far too much fun dressing fashionably on a public stage among all those serious men and women. Besides, I wouldn’t possibly want to comment about men wearing dark suits with light brown shoes. Or zany socks, for that matter.

BORIS JOHNSON

Boris Johnson, known to close family as Al, insolently tripped and stumbled into high office, first as mayor of London, then as a bungling foreign minister and now prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

His dress is as shambolic as his behavior and mode of leadership. A solid blue suit, a white shirt and a solid tie seem to be a perfect formula on paper. However, Mr. Johnson’s suits are rumpled and ill-fitting, his shirts billowing and untucked and his ties limp like old banana skins.

But it wasn’t always so. While at Eton (the most elite and exclusive English boarding school, and, not coincidently, George Brummell’s alma mater) he was as well-dressed as any of his chums. It was also at Eton that he chose to drop his first name, Alexander, to use his second name, Boris, because it was so off-kilter. At Eton, too, he learned the art of un-dress: how to appear heedlessly scruffy, in a special English way.

All manner of incompetence and bad behavior is excusable when performed by someone who looks like a clown. “Oh, it’s just Boris. He can’t help it. He’s like one of us.”

In the interest of full disclosure, my observations here are not first-hand since I am several years older than Boris Johnson and I did not go to Eton College. My mother insisted that I attend a school that did not allow fagging (the system of servitude at boarding school – check Wiki). And she needn’t have worried since, being considered both a pleb and a bit foreign, I would not have been a contender. In retrospect I can appreciate the advantages that exclusivity can bring.

VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH PUTIN

From Boris let’s move on to Vladimir. The president of Russia also understands the Brummellian rules, though he may not know them as such.

The suits are dark, the shirts are light and solid, and the ties are subdued and solid.

Despite his success at remaining in office for decades, or perhaps because of it, these days Mr. Putin wears his suit jacket as if it was made of chain mail. Not that they are ever shiny. It just looks like they weigh a ton. The burden of responsibility rests heavily on his shoulders. His posture seems to say, “Just leave me alone.”

His suits are decently cut. But not too well. There is no flash in what he wears, allowing him to stand out among the strivers around him. There is a little extra room around the waist of his jackets. It’s probably designed not to appear tailored, though there’s a rumor that Mr. Putin uses a lower back brace. Or does he still keep a Makarov tucked in there?

BACK TO AMERICA

So here was Emmanuel Macron on CBS’s Face the Nation, droning on and on while Margaret Brennan, the moderator, could hardly get a word in edgeways.

I can’t remember much of what he said, but here are my mental notes on what he was wearing:

  • His suit is not quite as dark as usual. Is it my eyes, or is that actually Jack Kennedy blue?
  • There’s more room in the chest on this jacket.
  • Look at the pronounced roping on the shoulders, which are also broader. Could those be true pagoda shoulders?
  • I see an unusual sweep of cloth from his shoulders around the back of his neck. Unusual for him, that is. Very muscular.
  • The lapels are peaked, which is unusual for a single-breasted suit. More formal and authoritative.
  • I am starting to think that this is not from his usual made-to-measure tailor Jonas et Cie on Rue Aboukir (about $500). It looks more like fully bespoke by Cifonelli on Rue Marbeuf ($7,500 and up).
  • His shirt is probably from Thuillier, as usual. But he’s wearing French cuffs! For the American audience, no doubt.
  • His tie also has more body than normal – as it should. But it’s imperfectly skewed ever so slightly to the right, as it always is.

Mr. Macron is telling us (dear Americans) that he is powerful, a solid force in tempestuous times, supremely knowledgeable and a fluent communicator. And that he does all this effortlessly.

My wife quietly observes me out of the corner of her eye while I am glued to the screen. She is confident that it is not Margaret that I am ogling, but the boy in blue.