‘style’ on the campaign trail

Ask anyone in my family and they will tell you when it comes to politics I have quite a few opinions. Not least is my totally un-informed, not based on any data, personal – some may say shallow – theory on why the way a politician dresses matters.

As we enter six weeks of political debate and back stabbing here in the UK ahead of the general election, more than a few of the great British public who are indifferent to politics will enter polling booths (if they bother to vote at all) with little or no idea of who or what they are voting for. Cynical – not really – just realistic, and here is where my theory comes into play.

In social psychology evidence indicates that similarity breeds liking and this is known as The Similarity Effect. Similarities can refer to shared attitudes and values, as well as political opinions, cultural background, or even minute details like posture. So if actual science says that the way you stand is influential, then surely the minute details can also include style.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump of course completely refute my theory, as they are both more than a little challenged on the style front – and that’s being kind. Who in their right mind would identify with either of them on a sartorial level? But here’s where personality comes into the equation. In the same way that we might find Peter Kay, Brian Cox or Tony Soprano fascinating, humour, power and personality also matter. But hopefully we all learnt that particular lesson when it comes to politics.

How powerful people dress to illustrate their rank is fascinating. The decisions about what we wear on a daily basis can illustrate our cultural affiliations, belief systems and financial status. Our style choices can unite or divide, depending on how we view ourselves in society, meaning politicians tread a very thin line between engaging and alienating the public.

Cool Brittannia

Back in 1997 ‘New Labour’ jumped on the bandwagon of ‘Cool Britannia’, using it to tap into the cultural Zeitgeist and boost their power with the youth market. Noel Gallagher and Stella McCartney were invited to Tony Blair’s No 10 “opening” party and it suddenly felt cool to be British.

With commentators predicting a 1997-style general election landslide for the Labour Party, one could draw parallels between May 97 and now, in more ways than one. So how will the 2024 Labour Party move away from their 2015 geography teacher in an anorak Jeremy Corbyn era and make Keir Starmer ‘cool’? Or does he even have to be?

Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria

Keir Starmer made his Vogue debut in February 2024 talking about everything from his vision for Britain to his love of the Gunners (Arsenal football team for those who don’t know). The accompanying images taken at London’s Parliament Hill, with his wife Victoria, a health worker, featured understated to the point of bland outfits and offered little or no clue to their status or style choices.

In his previous career as a QC Keir was no stranger to a smart suit, but his recent move towards head-to-toe navy and dark-coloured shirts worn with suit jackets, appears to be a nod towards non-establishment and non-corporate style. It says likeable lad, in the way that Gary Lineker and Gareth Southgate manage to blend relatable style and authority.

Angela Rayner in Vogue

Meanwhile Angela Rayner’s appearance in Vogue in December 2023 backfired, as she was criticised for wearing borrowed designer clothes – standard practice for anyone being photographed for the magazine – but some felt that it didn’t align with her views on Britain’s wealth divide.

Rishi Nomac

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s attempts to appear as a man of the people has often done exactly the opposite. From his narrow city boy cropped trousers, quiet luxury grey cashmere hoodie (over a shirt and tie), Palm Angels slides, £335 Common Projects sneakers, Prada loafers and his biggest crime against fashion, ‘Sambagate,’ Rishi appeared to take himself more seriously when announcing the general election.  Having scaled up from his shrunken suit look, his full length big boy trousers were somewhat overshadowed by the fact he was soaking wet (why did he have to appear outside in the pouring rain?) earning him the name Rishi Nomac on Twitter.

Low key, understated style, that says intelligent, serious, yet relatable, or bespoke, luxury and out of most people’s reach – does a politician’s style reflect their values and political stance, or am I over thinking it?
You decide.

Let the style wars begin……