The semiotics of dress are a fascinating subject. It's not so much what your clothes say about you as what you want them to say. That's a notion harnessed by politics for centuries. Elizabeth I transformed herself into a living, barely breathing icon in stays and farthingale; Thatcher's granny bags and tailored suits were embodiment of conservative-with-a-small-C values; even Clegg, Cameron and Miliband sport something by way of sartorial indicators, if only just a colour-coordinated tie toeing the party line.
Nigel Farage frequently sports a rosette in the bruise purple and pus yellow that is emblematic of Ukip – signalling, perhaps, aesthetic independence from traditional notions of tonal harmony. The Renaissance was so European, after all. However, what that garish rosette is pinned to is far more interesting. Subtler, more insidious.
I've spent an inordinate amount of time examining what Farage has chosen to wear in recent months, and the results are surprising. Surprising because it isn't a nondescript navy suit with colours pinned openly to the mast – but something complex, considered, undoubtedly conscious. There are photographs of Farage sporting window-pane check tweeds in lichen tones of green and ochre, wrapped in mustard corduroy, or in velvet-collared Crombie. The best-known image is Farage nursing a warm pint of beer in a battered Barbour, like a parochial lord mingling with his estate tenants.
That is, of course, the exact message Farage wishes to convey. His clothes speak not of politics, but of class. At least, mediately. Farage apes the dress of the quintessential English gentleman, the lord of the manor. It reminds me of the costumes of Richard DeVere in To the Manor Born – costumes for both the actor Peter Bowles, and for the character himself. Remember, DeVere was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia desperate to fit in among the landed gentry. What better way to assimilate than to adopt their garb?
Farage doesn't want to be mistaken for the gentry. But his clothes are consciously aping those of the upper classes. Farage went golfing in a pair of battered but still rather vibrant red trousers – the hunting pink of our times, loaded with aristocratic allusions. And the allusion Farage is desperate to imbue his attire with, and therefore his person and his party, is the respectability that is somehow still seated deep in those upper-class pretensions. In clothes like this, so expressive as they are of long-held values and ethics, Farage can't be getting up to anything untoward, right?
All that tweediness and waxed cotton is redolent of a mythologised past – a past which, for many, is better than the present of economic slump, Isis and the erosion of grand old traditions. Farage's fuddy-duddy dress is a calculated harking-back to old-fashioned standards, to integrity, to post-war patriotism and buoyed-up nationalism. Much more powerful and persuasive than "rampant xenophobia" or "middle England small-mindedness". There was even a touch of the Churchill to Farage's get-up when he donned a tribally and double-breasted chesterfield. He was missing the cigar, granted. Maybe he's waiting for victory for that.
Those are some bold claims. But Farage dresses boldly. There's no room for anonymity in his clothing – particularly when, unlike his policies, his image is delivered undiluted and topped with a rictus grin, from left- and right-wing publications alike. That image sings out truer than any speech – because it's entirely free from outside interference or analysis. Farage's appearance says exactly what he wants it to. For him, clothes maketh the not the man, but the scam.Reuse content