Much has been made this week of the shortness of Rishi Sunak’s trousers, with some commentators calling the mid-ankle crop “baffling” and a political liability. That so much has been read into something as trifling as the point where his otherwise bland trouser leg meets his bland sock says a lot about the state of UK politicians’ attire.
Chief among them: British prime ministers. Though not famous for being interestingly dressed – much less for being well dressed – there have been a choice few who stuck their heads above the parapet to display bland suits and boring black shoes to show a little flair. When they have, it has been seized upon – either to provide evidence of their authenticity, consolidate their popularity at the polls, or be weaponised and used to prove they are slippery, out of touch or unfit for office.
From homburg hats to leopard-print kitten heels, these prime ministers gave commentators a little more to talk about.
Augustus Henry Fitzroy
He entered parliament via a pocket borough, only served as prime minister for a year and 106 days between 1768 and 1770, and was early on described as “a young nobleman already ruined by play”. The third Duke of Grafton was depicted as a “macaroni”, the Georgian-era precursor to the fashion-conscious dandy. But, as the fashion historian Valerie Steele points out, while there is proof that he was a “gambler, a cuckold, an adulterer, and a corrupt and unpopular minister”, whether he actually wore macaroni dress is unclear. That didn’t stop caricaturists from weaponising a contemporary style of dress to critique a prime minister seen as dodgy and lacking discretion.
A fashion icon to the extent that he was apparently known simply as “Eden” in Savile Row, the prime minister from 1955 to 1957 was known for his single-breasted waistcoats, lounge suits and his homburg hat. His legacy cannot be untangled from the Suez fiasco but, less well known, is that he was an unexpected pioneer of nail varnish. As the newspaper columnist AN Wilson commented, he was “easily the best-looking individual, of either sex, to occupy that office in the 20th century” as well as “the only British prime minister known to varnish his fingernails”.
Prime minister briefly in 1868, then between 1874 and 1880, Disraeli played a role in the creation of the modern Conservative party, yet his sartorial legacy is largely absent from his descendants. Unafraid to dress up, a fellow guest at a dinner party once noted his outfit of a velvet coat, purple trousers with a gold band, a scarlet waistcoat, “long lace ruffles, falling down to the tips of his fingers, white gloves with several brilliant rings outside them, and long black ringlets rippling down upon his shoulders”. If only more prime ministers took such wardrobe risks.
Known for his Gannex raincoat and pipe, the sartorial legacy of the former Labour prime minister (1964 to 1970, and 1974 to 1976) is so potent as to have apparently reached down the decades to inspire Harry Styles. When things were going well, his style was seen as reassuring and trustworthy. But when things went south, his critics depicted his pipe smoke as obfuscating and his rain mac as evidence of his bad judgment. In a speech in 1976, Margaret Thatcher made a zinger out of Wilson’s raincoat, saying it “had not protected the country”. Joseph Kagan, the businessman who invented the waterproof fabric these coats were made from, was made a knight and then a peer by Wilson. However, after a theft conviction for which he went to jail he was stripped of the knighthood.
As cultural commentator Peter York once wrote: “Tony Blair dresses like successful business people of his generation dress. The Paul Smith suits, like the guitar playing, form a link with these peers.” Blair’s suits were unremarkable, but polished, and his style was informal and felt modern in the same way that New Labour felt modern. The devil was in the detail – from the hidden illustrations of naked ladies in the cuffs of his shirt to the suit jacket louchely slung over the shoulder, a signal that he had banter as well as budget.
From her strong and stable necklaces to her natty bright suits and leopard-print kitten heels, May might have been robotic and greige in her delivery, but she was, relative to your average Westminster bod, experimental in her wardrobe choices. If not well dressed, then she was certainly interestingly dressed – from the twofer (one coat, designed to look like two) she wore on budget day to the gold leather trousers she wore for a Sunday Times photoshoot. Most pointed of all was the ball gown she wore to cast her ballot in the Boris Johnson no-confidence vote.