Could sartorial competence help win the election?

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With the UK’s general election now announced, so begins the real campaign. In the contest of sartorial competence, which of the candidates will win the vote? 

Rishi Sunak got proceedings off to an inauspicious start on Wednesday: announcing the July 4 election while standing in the pouring rain. He ploughed on regardless of the weather. As his words were drowned out by music, he talked about security. “I will forever do everything in my power to provide you with the strongest possible protection,” said a man so incapable of provision he hadn’t even got an umbrella to keep him dry.

As a metaphor for leadership, the circumstances could not have been more grim. Sunak’s speech was badly compromised, his hair was frizzing, his suit so wet it looked shellacked. At the moment he most needed to look commanding, he looked profoundly weak. Standing at the podium, he was the embodiment of a drip.

Sunak looks like a school prefect trying desperately to please. A rival hopeful, the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, looks like every middle manager you’ve ever seen: a man so unmemorable that even while typing this sentence I’ve had to twice recheck his name. The Green party leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay are pretty funky: especially Denyer, who has a pixie cut and wears a lot of black. Ramsay too favours sober suiting, and rarely wears a tie. Keir Starmer has the benign energy of a prep-school master at the weekend: he still evokes an eyes-on-you authority. He’s also grasped the shirt-sleeve messaging that telegraphs approachability while impressing an ambition to get things done. 

As he is the likely victor in this contest, we must further examine Starmer’s mien. The Labour leader launched a campaign poster and a six-point pledge of “my first steps” last week that helped establish his sartorial persona for the election run. He favours the shirt-and-tie look — the guise of the white-collar everyman. And now fuelled with hopes of a Labour victory, the style is clearly a nod to Tony Blair. In its style and execution, the “first steps” campaign paid homage to the “Because Britain Deserves Better” poster that helped deliver Blair a landslide victory in 1997. In that poster, as in the new one, the Labour hopefuls are dressed in ties and white shirts, sleeves pushed up, slightly cuffed. But while Blair looked cocksure and slightly rumpled, Starmer still looks uptight. His shirt is so crease-free it might have been steam-pressed directly on to his torso. 

Starmer’s campaign image is the same version of a look that has been near universally adopted by more left-leaning politicians since President Obama’s arrival in the Oval Office in 2009. Obama was a sartorial pin-up — loose, elegant and casual — as captured magnificently by the White House photographer Pete Souza. The look reached its apotheosis via Soazig de La Moissonnière’s portraits of the ever-ready-for-his-close-up French President Emmanuel Macron. And its nadir via Sunak in his starched white shirt and Adidas Sambas talking tax policies at Downing Street.

Sunak’s wardrobe blunders may not be an electoral deal breaker, but they contribute to the confusion of what he represents. His weird slim-fit City-boy suiting, ankle-grazing trousers and “trendy” hoodies look too much like a stylist’s work. His biggest mistake has not been to try to co-opt Gen Z’s favourite sneaker in a bid for cultural relevance, but that he too often eschews the tie. It’s bad enough to lose the blazer, but ditching the neckwear makes him look like a football pundit or daytime TV presenter rather than the leader of the world’s sixth-largest economy. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer’s look suggests ‘the benign energy of a prep-school master at the weekend’ © Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Nor is Starmer’s breezy Blair-y demeanour especially convincing. If one wants only to wear a shirt, one must consider all things corporeal, and there’s a thin line between looking lithe and healthy and appearing like a peacock so preoccupied by body image you must spend hours in the gym. I don’t want my political representative to look as though they’re about to run an ultra-marathon: they should present as vital, but that should be in mental acuity rather than in the circumference of their guns. Starmer recalls a stuffed shirt trying to be nonchalant and it really doesn’t work.

Starmer is hopefully too intelligent to try to bring the preening vanity encouraged of modern politicians to his own campaign trail, but his studied insouciance is no more convincing than Sunak’s fashionable OOTD. He too seems to have fallen victim to the vogue for trying to project a persona — see also everyone going to Ukraine and dressing like a mini-soldier — rather than trying to represent one’s true self. And why not wear a blazer? It’s the greatest gift the wardrobe ever offered to the professional: not only does it slim the body, it can also stash one’s spectacles and change. 

So, when you’re knocking on those doorsteps, here’s my “first steps” plan. Wear a blazer. And have a brolly at all times.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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