In Washington, however, doors still open to pinstripe suits. Senate suites and federal agencies remain holdouts against rolled-up sleeves, even as much of the corporate world has gladly left the jacket and tie in the closet. On Pennsylvania Avenue, formality starts at the top. If the president doesn’t wear a suit, he seems to voters less than presidential. (Jimmy Carter tried to buck tradition, but his cardigans inspired giggles, not imitation.) With the gold standard set in the Oval Office, all the members of his court–the cabinet officials, senators, policy advisors, and lobbyists seeking his attention–feel compelled to hire the same tailors.
Fashions change, but wardrobe’s power to signal rank and membership persists. In Dressed to Rule, a book that would appeal to both Machiavelli and Martha Stewart, Philip Mansel retells modern history with an emphasis on how political leaders have used dress to impress and transgress. Editor of the journal The Court Historian, Mansel gleans details from coronation portraits, family albums, travel diaries, and newsreels to show how rebels and kings have wielded highland kilts, top hats, and head scarves as shorthand for identity and ideology. Strategic displays of cloth and flesh often denote not only who’s in charge, but whether the claim to rule is staked on birth, might, or wit. An historian by training, Mansel is careful in his assertions, and his book is not crafted in service of a central argument. Yet, he implicitly builds the case that no political upheaval has ever occurred without an accompanying revolution in dress.
Once the male idol of the Western world, Louis XIV shrouded himself in luxuriant satin coats with gold embroidery and lace sleeves, silk stockings, and full-bottomed wigs–which Mansel suggests helped enhance his claim to rule France by divine right. At a time when most mortals wore course clothes of flax and wool, the Sun King brandished strategic splendor as later rulers would display military might. He also invited his courtiers to watch him dress. Robing the king was an elaborate 90-minute ritual each morning, with attendants crowding the antechambers awaiting their turn to enter: Only premier officials were admitted while he was shaving; bishops, marshals, and governors of the provinces could enter later. Visiting dignitaries were sometimes awarded the privilege of handing the king his shirt. The ritual afforded the French court a close look at the king’s new clothes–significant because nobles proclaimed their loyalty by imitating the king–and kept business flowing to the nation’s silk looms and lace factories. The dress industry then employed a third of wage-earners in France (many of the lace factories were founded by Colbert), and if members of the Third Estate were busy working, they had less time to plot rebellion.
Admission to court functions and access to his majesty’s counsel was assured by proper attire. To enter the king’s presence, male courtiers were required to don silk or velvet coats encrusted with jewels and embroidery, and women to squeeze into corseted dresses with puffy sleeves and long trains. Ordinances prohibited untitled aspirants from donning such finery. One emblematic accessory, which Louis turned into a must-have item among both ladies and gents at court, was red high heels, or talons rouges. The fashion, as Mansel explains, advertised a lifestyle of leisure, “demonstrat[ing] that nobles did not dirty their shoes.” Seventeenth century aristocrats, after all, believed they were born into privilege and didn’t often need to saunter far or break a sweat.
Soon discerning rulers across Europe coveted talons rouges. With outthrust calves and pointed toes, contemporary monarchs in Britain, Austria, Saxony, and elsewhere flaunted red heels in coronation portraits. Dolls dressed in the latest Versailles fashions were prized as far as Constantinople and St. Petersburg, and, as Mansel notes, even in capitols distinctly hostile to the Bourbon throne such as Vienna and London.
But soon Enlightenment thinking–the novels and essays of Voltaire and Montesquieu–made its way along the same trade routes, and Europeans began to question aristocratic entitlement and kingship based upon divine right. Instead of throwing lavish galas, enlightened despots in Eastern Europe began to fortify their armies, articulate new justifications for absolute monarchy, and restock their closets. Frederick II of Prussia, who prided himself on the martial values of discipline, strength, and service to the state began to wear military uniforms to dinner–and soon to diplomatic functions, even to communion, the more battle-worn, the better. “The more victories he won,” Mansel notes, “the shabbier his uniforms became. Some were stained with snuff, torn, darned and patched at the elbows. He wanted to look as he appeared on the battlefield.” Showing off dirty boots had become a way to advertise work ethic and war prowess.
On the day she seized power, Catherine the Great of Russia donned the uniform of the palace guard, then enlisted their help overthrowing her husband. To commemorate her coup, she commissioned a portrait of herself on horseback in the guard’s green and gold uniform, wearing boots and brandishing a sword. When she later hosted state dinners, she often donned her “regimental gown,” a singular hybrid with a military jacket-like top, glittering insignia on the lapels, and a full skirt. By 1790, court dress in Russia, Prussia, and Austria recalled army battalions more than ballroom dances; martial attire was practically de rigueur.
With the rise of the British empire came new fashion trends. There was the full length trouser, which the British military preferred to the more-constricting knee-breech; the black jacket for formal attire (it didn’t show soot in 19th century London), and the advent of khaki in more workaday clothes. Khaki, which means dust-colored in Hindi, was first introduced in 1848 for British regimental uniforms in India; later it was adopted by the entire army, and later still by legions of casual-Friday office workers.
While India’s rajahs disdained the clothing of the imperial officers, in regions never forcibly colonized dark suits and tailored trousers were seen as a uniform of modernization. In 1871, the Emperor of Japan began to sport western-style clothes and required his officials to do so the same. When one official requested to wear traditional clothing, a minister of the emperor curtly replied, “Are you still ignorant of the world situation?” At the end of the 19th century, Afghan princes were seen hiking up mountaintops in Highland kilts.
As the sun set on traditional military empires, western leaders again changed tailors. Two world wars rattled Europe’s enthusiasm for military uniforms, and dressing to affirm allegiance to the state (anywhere other than the battlefield) became a distasteful reminder of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin’s fondness for wearing uniform at Yalta and later Mao’s attempt to impose civilian uniform in China did nothing to spur a revival. After WWII, as economic power became the engine of international authority, the business suit became the uniform of the successful gentlemen.
Dressed to Rule is largely a history of male fashion, which is somewhat delightful in its irony–until you stop to think about it. With the exception of Catherine the Great and her regimental evening gown, very few women appear as rulers in these pages. To posit that men have historically used fashion for political ambition, while women have used it for seduction is a depressing thought, even when you admit how fine the line between politics and seduction can be–surely Louis XIV manipulated members of his court more like suitors than ministers, invoking as he did their instincts of jealousy, competition, and admiration.
But Mansel may yet endear himself to feminist historians. He’s provided new evidence to ponder why, when it comes to formal attire today, it seems men’s clothes are from Mars, women’s from Venus. After reading Dressed to Rule, you might wonder if the distinction is as much historical as biological. Men’s suits and shoes are more amenable to marching than ladies’ fitted skirts and high heels, which attract admiration but often oblige the wearer to catch a cab. Perhaps if women had also been conscripted in the Prussian army or the British civil service, they too would have kicked off their talons rouges for walkable flats.
Mansel does not focus on recent years, but it’s possible to extend his argument. In the last decade, under relentless competitive pressures, corporations have had to update their management philosophies; tradition and rank are out, flat hierarchies and innovation are in. Thus has the business suit largely given way everywhere to golf shirts, khaki pants, and blue blazers.
Everywhere, that is, but Washington. Here, old fashion trends linger, though in slightly updated form. In recent years, lady senators and cabinet officials from both parties have sported sported increasingly sported bright plumage–dress suits in yellow, green, peach, red–that would look out of place in the streets of New York or Chicago, but stand out exquisitely well in a crowd on C-SPAN. Condi Rice, who favored black and navy in her days in academia, now regularly wears yellow and crimson in view of news cameras.
Among men in Washington, business suits are becoming, if anything, more widespread and pricey–a sign of the greater formality and discipline of the Bush White House and the doubling in size of the K Street lobbying industry since 2000.
But like the fashions of all empires, this one too will someday pass. Probably the most talked-about fashion statement of the Bush years was the uniform CPA Administrator Paul Bremer wore in Baghdad in 2003: expensive suits and combat boots. The look, the ultimate 21st century imperial chic, perfectly symbolized the administration’s confident strategy of occupation–minimal U.S. troops, maximum use of contractors and privitization. Even Rumsfeld aped the look on his visits to Iraq. But since then, the occupation has gone south, Bremer has gone home, and American officials in Iraq are no longer seen very often strutting around Baghdad in pinstripes.