The States and the Union.

Obama on the cover of Ebony, August 2008.

Marmite vs peanut butter, football vs football, monarchy vs republic...it is clear that the pond is not the only thing that separates the UK and the USA. Recently, with the British elections approaching, the inevitable comparison has been drawn between the nations' leaders. 

Touting Barack Obama as a model of sartorial cool, Mensflair published a critique of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg's painfully banal style of dress. My-wardrobe.com has also hopped on the political bandwagon, offering a desperately uninspired guide to dressing like the wife of your favourite party candidate (why would I want to do that??). British blogger Andrew Williams writes: 'It seems that in modern British politics there is no place for style, flair, individuality or even quality. The requirement is to dress like a high-street bank manager, as the recent leadership debate highlighted beautifully. [...] In many ways politicians are a reflection of the people they govern. That may mean the majority of the people in the UK dress in a perfunctory and uninspiring way – which isn’t far from the truth. Or perhaps it is a sign of our immaturity that we should distrust men who dress well, or resent them having money to spend on clothes. [...] Indeed, we’re more likely to praise them for their thriftiness.'

While it is true that British politicians play it safe when it comes to their appearance, it is not wholly without reason that they avoid opulence. After all, Cindy McCain was lampooned for wearing a $300,000 outfit to the RNC, while her husband was trying to galvanize the support of working-class americans. There's obviously a balance between dressing like a thrifty old frump and wearing earrings that cost more than most people's homes, but I think the widespread sense of suspicion that many Brits have toward visible wealth is the result of deeper issues than just immaturity and resentment. British society is structured much more rigidly than its American counterpart. It is an ancient system that has been reinforced over hundreds of years, a system replete with hierarchical subtleties that separate those who get it from those who do not. Such an establishment breeds a strong sense of identity (how often do you hear the boast that a Brit can tell what street a person's from based on their accent?) but also a tacit belief in social immobility. Fundamentally it is understood that you will do the best with what you have, but class, power and status are not attainable through wealth alone. Their potential leaders are already separated from the average Brit by an Oxbridge education and countless other privileges...add a £3000 suit and you have a candidate who is so obviously distant from the common citizen that he must be out of touch with her needs.

On the contrary, the yank's attitude towards visible wealth is an incarnation of the American Dream: the idea that, armed with the protestant work ethic and the sheer will to achieve, anybody can succeed. The society of the States is founded upon the principle of mobility. Thus, when confronted with leaders who are well-educated and well-dressed, the American thinks (however resentfully) 'Someday, I could be/have/wear that too.' (Of course the US has concepts like 'American Royalty' and 'old money' vs. 'nouveau riche,' but the lines are much hazier and really only matter in New England anyway.) Ultimately, this American reaction is aspirational, not apprehensive. And it is this profound contrast in attitude that defines different approaches to political dressing on opposites sides of the Atlantic.

Poor Sarah Brown looks like she got her pleather belt from the cut price bin at Primark;
Miriam Durantez does a little better with neutrals.

Michelle Obama shows us how it's done.