The new Tory leader and likely prime minister is rewriting the rules of what leadership looks like
By guest author Vanessa Friedman from the New York Times
On the world stage there are few national leaders who can compete with President Trump in the indelible image-making sweepstakes of the new social media order.
With his tangerine skin and white-circled sun-bed-goggle eyes, his candy-floss blond comb-over and too-long bright red ties and blowzy Brioni suits, he is a cartoon of a politician straight out of late-night TV: risible and seared into your retinas at the same time. It’s funny, until you realize it’s also unforgettable.
Emmanuel Macron with his neatly cropped hair and well-cut navy suits doesn’t come close. Nor does Justin Trudeau, despite his attempt to get creative with socks. Xi Jinping of China may have rocked his party by allowing his hair to grow gray, but globally he is entirely buttoned up.
Vladimir Putin’s off-duty uniform of bare chest and leather jacket screams mutant machismo, but he dresses by the rules at official public events. It is possible that only Kim Jong-un, with his Mao suits and flattop bouffant, has reached the same level of absurd, yet effective, self-caricature.
Until, that is, the members of the Conservative Party of Britain voted two-to-one to make Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson its new party leader, and hence set to be the prime minister.
And though he stood for his first speech as Tory leader in a spotless dark blue suit, his top jacket button firmly buttoned, a pristine white shirt and a sky blue tie only just slightly right of center, it is possible that Mr. Johnson trumps even President Trump when it comes to strategic use of a deceptively absurd image and sleight of sartorial hand.
He is certainly the only other head of government who has had multiple stories devoted to the evolution of his hair: a unique mop of very fine electric blond that has on occasion resembled a medieval bowl cut but more often is standing on end in confusion after having been tugged willy-nilly by its owner. It has even had its own Twitter account (@Boris_Hair) and conspiracy theorists (Boris Johnson Hair Truthers).
And it is possible that with the rise of both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump, it is time to start rethinking all traditional wisdom about what it takes to convince people that candidates are leadership material. Or at least that they look as if they are.
After all, attention to detail, the ability to control multiple variables at once, shoulders that can (ahem) shoulder the burden of office — qualities conveyed through the exactingly squared-off cut of a suit free from wrinkles and the polish of perfectly parted hair — were once considered crucial to electability but have been rendered seemingly irrelevant by the ascent of Mr. Johnson.
Since his government debut as a member of Parliament in 2001, his time as mayor of London (2008 to 2016) and foreign secretary, the adjectives often used to describe him include “shambolic,” “clownish” and “a buffoon.” His jackets are usually “rumpled” and flapping open, his shirts “spilling out,” his collars awry, his ties rarely on an even keel.
When he was mayor of London, he was famous for his eye-popping running outfits, which included a red beanie with an unzipped beige fleece and bright red and white Hawaiian shorts. Also what looked like silk boxing shorts with a giant dragon on the crotch. (Also for getting stuck on a zip line during the London 2012 Olympics while wearing a baby blue helmet, a blue and red harness, and waving two mini Union Jacks.)
These are clothing choices that would have, on most public figures, inspired ridicule and mockery to an extent that they might have subverted any faith in that individual’s ability to negotiate effectively during a G7 summit. On Mr. Johnson, however, they somehow became badges of credibility that bridged the class gap.
On the one hand, they spoke to what Sonia Purnell, the author of the biography “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition,” identified in her book as the mythic “English eccentric” (think the Duchess of Devonshire feeding her chickens in her evening dress).
On the other, they made the product of an otherwise elite upbringing — an international childhood, Eton, Oxford, languages that include ancient Greek — a figure of accessibility and affection: Yes, he looks like an idiot sometimes. But hey, don’t we all?
As a longtime fan of P.G. Wodehouse and Chaucer, and a student of history, Mr. Johnson surely understands the way bumbling plays in both the public mind and the British character narrative.
Nor could it have escaped him that, at least in recent history, this style has rarely, if ever, been adopted by those in power. Prime ministers like Tony Blair, David Cameron and even Gordon Brown were careful to button the top button to keep their suit lines straight when they were standing behind a podium, and they knew to sit on their jackets during an interview to make sure the shoulder lines stayed square.
Mr. Johnson lets it all sort of shuffle around. He doesn’t just break the boring old rules, he blows raspberries at them. His schlubbiness is both a product of his privilege and its antidote. It’s a balancing act that leaves his opponents at a loss.
When he embarked on the leadership competition, he seemed to toe the classic line more closely, apparently thanks to his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, who reportedly urged him to get a haircut and put him on a diet. Still he managed to show up at a Tory leadership debate in June with one of his socks inside out, a detail the British press — broadsheet as well as tabloid — seized on with great delight.
Now that he is about to move into No. 10, there is no reason to expect any of this to change.
In the debate over whether his clowning is a sign of authenticity or pure genius calculation — or, most likely, a bit of both, in that he came by it naturally and then learned very quickly how to exploit it to his advantage — less has been made of its potential wider impact.But in a world where casual Fridays, the pre-eminence of the tech uniform and the rise of street wear has freed everyone to de-stuff their suits, Mr. Johnson may be just the beginning. Are we in for an era of rumpled men?
After all, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, deploy their dishevelment in strategic ways, each of them seemingly too passionate about the issues to iron. And while their physical sloppiness may once have been seen as reflecting a mental sloppiness, in an increasingly airbrushed and filtered world it telegraphs unvarnished truth telling and reality. It holds the allure of the anti-spin.
Even when it’s manufactured. Suddenly, looking like a mess looks to many awfully good. And, when that happens, who really gets the last laugh?