Should Politicians Wear Jeans?
Some people probably wouldn't care if David Cameron turned up for the Queen's Speech in bondage trousers and with a safety pin through his nose. Others might take a different view. Politicians' fashion choices are always under the spotlight and are often a useful stick to beat them with. After all, we do live in a world where image can be crucial. We also inhabit the same planet as an MP in Pakistan who was reported to have blamed earthquakes and inflation on women who wear jeans.
It is unlikely that many people would see their leaders' fashion choices as having the potential to incite the wrath of god. However, for people who effectively live in a goldfish bowl, image does matter, if not to their god then to the people who vote for them.
Most leading politicians around the world have been pictured wearing jeans when they are off duty and there shouldn't be anything particularly controversial about that. The big question is should they wear denim when they are working?
The Casual Revolution
Dress codes have been becoming progressively more casual in all walks of life. Following the power dressing era that was the 1980's, the likes of Steve Jobs began setting a trend for dressing down in the 1990's. Fast forward to the late noughties and even world leaders had jumped on the band wagon.
In 2007 French President Nicolas Sarkozy wore jeans the morning he was elected. In 2009 Russian president Dmitry Medvedev wore jeans when he dined with President Obama who had himself worn jeans when making the first pitch at an All-Star baseball game. Obama recieved copious amounts of stick for the baggy "mom" jeans that he chose to wear for the event. Tony Blair also decided to wear denim when paying a visit to George Bush and was criticised for his sense of style. His jeans were panned for being too tight. One journalist later quipped than you couldn't have concealed anything larger than a quarter in those jeans!
On these occasions the politicians were, to one extent or another, on official duty but not in a particularly formal context. Their jeans didn't raise too many eyebrows but they might have done if they had been on show in the House of Commons, the US Congress or the French Parliament.
In 2010 Labour MP Thomas Docherty complained to the deputy speaker Dawn Primarolo that dress standards in the House of Commons were falling. Some female MPs had been attending debates wearing jeans. A fact which clearly scandalised Mr. Docherty. The deputy speaker was amused but largely unmoved as Mr. Docherty suggested that MPs in the Commons should dress in "what most people would regard as business attire".
What is Business Attire?
Thomas Docherty might have garnered more support if he had chosen his words more carefully. These days what most people regard as business attire could very well be jeans!
There isn't an official dress code as such for the House of Commons but convention requires that members dress in business attire. Men are expected to wear suits and ties and the Speaker has been known to take exception to transgressors.
There are few rules which must be adhered to but none of them relate to jeans or business suits. MPs are not allowed to wear hats in the House of Commons and they can't wear military decorations or insignia. Suits of armour are banned as are swords. Now that really is cramping their style! The only hard and fast rule pertaining to contemporary attire is the ban on t shirts with slogans.
So MPs who wear jeans are challenging a convention not breaking a rule. Technically there is nothing to prevent the wearing of jeans and so it is likely that eventually some politicians will go casual and risk the wrath of the Speaker. Will casual dress help or hinder their careers?
You can't please all of the people all of the time. For politicians their public image is crucial but they are faced with having to appeal to an electorate consisting of several generations each of which will view the world very differently. Formal dress may lend politicians credibility as many people seek leaders that they can look up to. Others prefer representatives and leaders that they can identify with. They will vote for the candidates that they feel most represent their own values. Casual dress could help a politician to appear more of the people and in touch with contemporary life.
Politicians have a difficult balance to strike and the perfect outfit probably doesn't exist. One thing is for sure, though. The public at large are generally pretty good at spotting a fake. Politicians who deliberately dress down to gain the support of the masses might find that their jeans have the opposite effect. It is a rather sad indictment of our world that what a politician is wearing could be more important than what they are saying. This problem was highlighted by the late and undeniably great Ian Gow when he delivered the first televised speech in the House of Commons in 1989.
Ian Gow was tragically killed by the IRA just one year after making this speech.
People in public life should wear what they feel comfortable in and they should keep it real. A contrived look will be obvious and sometimes imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.
Right now it is probably a good thing for politicians to be seen in jeans when on official duty but perhaps not in the legislative chamber. Even parliaments will become more relaxed places over time but you can't build Rome in a day. A certain proportion of voters, journalists, commentators and public officials will still find jeans to be a step too far. Nonetheless, We look forward to the time when Jean Store is dressing world leaders!