"Clothes make the man," said Mark Twain. "Naked people have little or no influence on society." There are certain facts that rarely escape caustic American novelists, well-meaning mothers and political advisers, and among them is that clothes matter. A clean shirt collar is paramount; never forget to wear fresh underwear; you can always judge a man by his shoes. As David Cameron and Gordon Brown found out last week.
On the face of it the two men seem to have a great deal in common: both work in Westminster, both have young children and both are reasonably optimistic about being the next prime minister. But the semiotics of their leadership bids could hardly be more different.
When David Cameron's wife went into hospital to give birth to their third child on Monday, it was he who took an overnight bag. In it, according to political rune-readers, was a carefully chosen "We've given birth" outfit carefully calculated to nurture his cool, man-of-the-people image. It consisted of a soft, open-necked shirt, a faded pair of cool-guy jeans and a dangerously trendy pair of Converse trainers. His outfit screamed, "I'm one of you." And then it whispered apologetically, "Even though I went to Eton."
Gordon Brown, by contrast, had a different message. His problem isn't that he is not cool; his problem is that he is glacial. When he appeared on Andrew Marr's Sunday AM programme, he needed to "soften" his image. And so he did something radical: he wore a pink tie.
He could hardly have anticipated the reaction. Grown men sniggered behind their hands. There were dark mutterings about a "makeover", engineered by Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould. Others suspected his wife, Sarah, of taking a powder puff to his image. Some even claimed he is being taught to smile.
The fashion writer James Sherwood thinks this is ridiculous. "They should get over it," he says. "It is almost homophobic to suggest that a man should not be secure enough in his own sexuality to wear pink. Besides, David Cameron is very behind the fashion: ties are back in a big way. They came about so men could protect their throats during duels," he adds. "And I know I wouldn't want to be at the dispatch box with Tony Blair without my thorax covered."
If he intended to solicit the female vote, however, it seems that Gordon's pink look was a mistake. Veronique Henderson is the clinical director of the image consultancy Colour Me Beautiful, and she knows a thing or two about projecting the right image. "He's trying to look softer, and he's not getting it right," she says. "David Cameron always looks sharp. Gordon Brown looks crumpled. His hair is all over the place and it always looks greasy; he's not groomed. Cameron is a nice, clean-looking boy. Brown just looks tired."
While the two men's every stitch was being ruthlessly scrutinised (see our panel of experts on the right), their closest advisers were working furiously behind the scenes to deny any implication that they actually thought about what they wore. Perhaps they were thinking of Jane Austen's pronouncement: "Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim."
Cameron bought the shoes himself, from a branch of Office, just before Christmas, according to friends. "I don't think he gave the trainers a second thought," one said. "He's pretty up to date generally, but it's not something that he really thinks about." It is something that Cameron himself has been keen to stress. "I'm quite mean about clothes," he recently told The Scotsman. "Samantha tends to buy them. I'm not really interested in what I wear. If I'm left to myself I'd probably go to Next or Marks and Spencer. I have to confess I'm not a good clothes shopper." Eagle-eyed politicos have noticed, however, that he is often seen in the Commons in a well-cut Paul Smith suit, before changing into baggy surfer's shorts to cycle home.
On the other side of the Westminster divide, the Brown camp was equally keen to stress the ingenuousness of the Chancellor's sartorial selections. "All his aides are amazed by the hullabaloo," scoffed an insider. "The tie was a Christmas present, and he just grabbed it from the wardrobe as he was getting dressed. What was more interesting was that he did the whole interview with one trouser leg tucked into his sock, but nobody seemed to notice that." Clearly the idea of the Iron Chancellor in a silk tie was just too distracting.
Many, of course, find it difficult to believe that the clothing choices of the two politicians could have been anything less than minutely considered. "I don't believe Gordon Brown is the sort of man who makes any decisions without a great deal of thought," says Nick Foulkes, the author of Last of the Dandies. "It's quite interesting to see the lengths he will go to to present himself as a viable and rigorous prime minister in waiting."
While he admits that it is dangerous to generalise, Foulkes does believe that regional and class variations could account for the two men's taste in clothes. "If you were writing a book about what the middle classes should wear to give birth, Cameron's clothes would be it. It's subtly downplaying the idea that you could afford for your wife to give birth in a million-pound private hospital. It's like those photos of Harold Macmillan going to church in patched tweed; a working-class person from the North would have put on a clean collar and a proper suit.
"There is an idea of Sunday Best that does persist. There's a saying that you wear your best suit for your first court appearance and your wedding."
Gordon Brown's wedding suit was, in fact, almost identical to the navy blue, bespoke suits by Timothy Everest that he has been wearing for the past decade - apart from its costing £800 instead of the usual £500. In his defence, the prudent Chancellor asked for four pairs of trousers to match the jacket and requested that it be "hard-wearing", so that he can make it last.
As they progress down the road to No 10, Messrs Cameron and Brown will have to make infinitely more subtle sartorial decisions. Probably their wives and their advisers will help. Undoubtedly they will often get it wrong. Perhaps they would do well to bear in mind the words of Albert Einstein, a master of dishevelment. "If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture," he said, "let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.
" It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it."
NICKY HAMBLETON-JONES, PRESENTER OF CHANNEL 4'S '10 YEARS YOUNGER'
Cameron has got more of a grip on the way he looks. When he is casual he is very much the guy next door. He comes across as very normal. Opting to go with an open shirt doesn't seem like a conscious decision. You get the feeling he's just reached into the wardrobe and found something that does the job. It is the party rather than him, that is aware of his image. They chose him. He didn't reinvent his look.
WAYNE HEMINGWAY, FASHION DESIGNER AND FOUNDER OF RED OR DEAD
The idea of a pink tie is slightly strange, but whatever rocks his boat. Maybe it was a Christmas present from his auntie and he felt he needed to wear it. I don't think how someone dresses is going to affect the result of the election - unless Gordon Brown went round in chaps without a shirt on - but a pink tie won't do it. If Brown started wearing Converse and tight jeans then we would start worrying.
VERONIQUE HENDERSON, CELEBRITIES' IMAGE ADVISER AND WRITER
Gordon Brown is trying to soften his image, but he's not getting it right. He always looks crumpled. It doesn't matter how much you spend, if you look groomed and impeccable you look powerful. Gordon Brown always looks tired and not on top of everything. I'm just picking the models for a book I'm working on, and there will be a body shape à la Gordon Brown. I'd recommend a double-breasted suit, clean and pressed.
NICK FOULKES, FASHION JOURNALIST
Cameron can get away with quite a lot. Maybe it is because he is about the same age as me, but I see what he's wearing and it doesn't look out of the ordinary. Cameron wants to point out that he has a right to a private life and he has a right to a private wardrobe. He simply wears what men wear to have babies. Jeans are not radical, they are orthodox now. Jeans not going to offend anybody. I think Cameron's look is actually without artifice.
JAMES SHERWOOD, FASHION WRITER
Gordon Brown has his finger on the pulse. Smart is back in a big way. Yet Brown has simply stuck with an appearance he is happy with. There's no playing to the gallery. At the root of his look are the shoes: solid, sturdy and dependable. They might not be flash, but is that what people want in a leader? In trying to appeal to the "yoof", Cameron's in danger of doing a William Hague, when he wore a baseball cap.
MARCELLE D'ARGY SMITH, FORMER EDITOR, 'COSMOPOLITAN'
Cameron is probably doing what comes naturally, but most people who vote are not young so he's going to be out of kilter. I think they only made 150 pairs of those trainers. He must have spent a lot of time and money on his cool dude style - too much for me to take him seriously. Women tend to look at the face. We don't want David Cameron to jump on us. He has all the sex appeal of an egg.Reuse content