‘Clothes to lie in’: what Boris Johnson’s carefully tailored chaos tells us about the man | Fashion


It’s nothing, what Boris Johnson wears: suit, shirt, tie, socks, shoes. It’s how he dresses that matters, what his clothes mean, and our reactions to it. We, after all, acquiesce to the societal codes within which he seeks his power.

Johnson’s clothes are an easy target: shambolic, unkempt, scruffy. He’s dressed this way since his schooldays at Eton college, more than four decades of consistent insolence. There’s a photograph of 15-year-old Johnson mid-pillow fight at Eton, the fanciness of his schooluniform disregarded. Johnson was the 20th prime minister from that public school (and the 55th PM).

Johnson’s shambles soon became his shtick, a signature aided by his eagerness to be a public punch bag. In 1998, he made his debut as a guest panellist on Have I Got News For You. Johnson was in his 30s, still just a journalist who had so far failed to win a seat in parliament. Halfway through the show, Johnson said as an aside: “Why does everybody wear trainers nowadays anyway?” He then told a story about Eton.

That night, his tie was knotted too tightly, but somehow it was still loose around his neck, the shirt collar weirdly splayed. The show made Johnson a celebrity. Messy posh buffoon was his natural role, and he was inviting the public to laugh at him. Johnson has always been willing for us to find his clothes funny.

This is no artifice, performance, or exaggeration. Chaos dressing is elemental to Johnson. It has often seen him in good stead. During the 2016 referendum on EU membership, his scruffiness during the Vote Leave campaign allowed him to seem a-man-of-the-people-of-whom-he-was-not. Once he made it to 10 Downing Street, his rolled shirt sleeves and flustered hair told his much-vaunted narrative of an all-hours hard worker.

But his tailored mess is also a front for a whole load of nasty in the pursuit of power. These are clothes in which to get away with lies. Any slicker, and his 2016 Vote Leave campaign promises, such as the £350m to the NHS, would not have stuck. His untruths rely on his disorder. It’s as if his clothes were saying: “Come on old bean, I’ve lied to your face; let’s not make a fuss about it – carry on as you were.”

It’s part of his peculiar emotional intelligence, which some of those who love him might call “charm”. It is also considered. The suit may look rucked around his body, but it still the appropriately formal, single-breasted, two buttoned sober suit that is globally understood as the uniform of patriarchal power. His shirts might be sticking out, but they are good shirts. The ties are badly knotted, but they are not novelty. His hair is increasingly in a state, but it is always roughly the same length: somebody is cutting it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for PMQs on May 20, 2020 Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The bluster of what Johnson wears is a sleight of hand, allowing for how he dresses his life. It’s the wallpaper for his Downing Street flat refurbishment that some say cost £2,250 a roll, others say £840. It’s his free holiday in the Caribbean, paid for by a Conservative party donor. It’s his recent wedding party, held at the home of the Bamford family, billionaire party donors.

It is also how he dressed himself in public to shore up his power, such as rewarding Jacob Rees-Mogg with promotion to the heart of British government. The elevation of Rees-Mogg is among Johnson’s grimmest legacies. Rees-Mogg is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Both men use the veil of their supposedly hilarious appearance to do their real work.

Please do not be triumphalist about Johnson’s departure. He wants us to return to laughing at him, so he can a) profit from telling his story; and b) reclaim power, be it through media or politics. Most people reading this are not likely to have voted for Johnson, nor his party or Vote Leave. This is no reason to be smug. The Labour party is trapped in patriarchal power, with no female leader in its 122-year history.

Keir Starmer exploits the patriarchal messaging of the tailored suit just as much as Donald Trump. In 2022, we are as far away as ever from the wishes of artist Zoe Leonard’s 30-year-old text artwork I Want A President, which starts with the line “I want a dyke for president.”

The suits that Johnson wears are no joke. They maintain a language of patriarchal power that has its roots in colonialism and empire. From what Johnson has previously written about colonialism, it’s likely this for him would be no problem. Which should be a problem for us.

Men’s clothes – aren’t they so funny? Novelty socks, comedy ties, hopeless style. How we laugh, without interrogating the role that the language of clothes plays in maintaining patriarchy. Yet the joke continues to be on us.

What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter is published by Penguin





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