The lazy days of late summer are not that idle in Turtle Bay, as the United Nations prepares for this month’s opening debate of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York. Before the swarm of world leaders descends on or about Sept. 18 and the news cycle hits hyperactive, now is the right moment to reflect on one of the most important matters in geopolitics: style.
In July, 20 world leaders from major economies met in Hamburg, Germany, for the Group of 20, or G20, summit meeting. Angela Merkel, the host, and Theresa May, Britain’s leader, stood out against a sea of 18 uniformly clad-in-blue or gray-suited men (and one daughter). The uniform of male world leadership — blue or gray suit, accent tie, white shirt — implies that men, even national heads of state, have minimal expressions of individuality.
A closer examination shows something more: the many ways that individualistic style, culture and region can be reflected in clothing.
The newest — and youngest — kid on the block, French president Emmanuel Macron, wore a trim-fitted suit with rather short sleeves in Hamburg, showing lots of white-shirt cuff and crisp pants tapered to cut above the top of his shoes. He dresses consistently in a style, according to The New York Times, meant to “reek of health, vigor and physical prowess.”
Compared with Macron, in Hamburg, Donald Trump looked like the grandfather he is. His loose, ill-fitting suits — pants lapping over his shoes and wading up around his ankles in the male version of crankles, jacket and tie both too long, the shoulders too boxy — presented an American casualness that would make any stylist shudder.
The Sydney Morning Herald suggests that the style of too-big suits is to make Trump look more imposing and powerful. Like the 6-foot-plus Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stands between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 7 inches, favors longer suit jackets and ties, possibly to project greater physical stature. The rest of his suit is tailored to his frame, maybe as a remnant of his time as a spy, in a complete nondescript style.
As these examples show, there is more to how a man dresses than blue suit, charcoal gray suit, suit with pinstripes or a very subtle plaid or tweed.
Take neckties: according to Thomas Fink and Young Mae, Cambridge University researchers, there are exactly 85 ways to tie a tie. The choices could be almost paralyzing each morning for the indecisive.
As Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece from the left-wing Syriza party, demonstrated at the 2016 UN General Assembly annual debate, a tie — or lack of one — offers the opportunity to express so much of a man’s attitude and possibly a country’s economic security. In 2015, he told his Italian counterpart that he would wear a tie when Greece’s debt crisis was solved. Will Tsipras wear a tie to the UNGA debate this month?
According to SRDS Consumer Media Advertising Source, which monitors magazines published in the United States, there are 26 magazines published monthly that cover women, style and fashion, while there are only 10 magazines that cover men’s style and fashion. That number includes Playboy and Penthouse; apparently not just for the articles anymore?
From the perspective of women dressing under the pink tax — unable to wear the same two suits all week long — and bombarded at newsstands with style advice, it is hard to appreciate the details and decisions that reflect an individual man’s style.
Yet today, men’s shirts can vary by color, print and fabric, and cuffs by closure — cufflinks or buttons. Suit-jacket lapels vary, as do the number and rows of buttons, three or two, single or double-breasted. Pant legs can be tapered or loose, creased or not. Should the break happen on top of the shoe, or slightly above to show off the socks or no socks issue? J. Alfred Prufrock’s existential question is repurposed for the 21st-century business environment: to cuff or not to cuff.
Like the US president, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, favors pants that break over his shoes and wade a little at the ankles. That’s where style similarities between Trump and Tusk end, as he is often seen in a well-fitted suit and shorter tie than the American president.
Assigning meaning to how a man dresses is just as sexist as trying to find messages in how a woman dresses. Intentional or not, region is reflected in how people, including men, dress.
Search “French girl style” on Google, and the return is 96,800,000 leads to mastering this look, from Instyle’s “Ultimate French Girl Style Guide” to Vogue’s running vertical devoted to “French Girl Style – News, Photos and Videos.”
When not advising grown women to dress in “girl style,” fashion magazines often cover the sophistication of Italian women, cashing in on regional stereotypes, such as StyleCaster’s “How to Dress as an Italian Bombshell.”
Google “French guy style,” and the results are a surprising 93,500,000; of those, the first two links actually go to men’s style articles: GQ’s “How to Get That Cool Ami-Wearing French Guy Style” and Esquire’s “Now You Can Dress Like an Effortlessly Cool French Guy.” The rest of the articles are devoted to finding the French man of a girl’s dream.
There are almost nine million articles, 10 percent of the above search, promoting Italian men’s style, such as The Wall Street Journal’s “The Beginners’ Guide to Italian Men’s Style”; Esquire’s “12 Style Lessons We Can Learn From the Italians”; or Mr. Porter’s “How to Dress Like An Italian|A Gentleman’s Guide.”
Combined, these made the slightly loose blue suit of the Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, worn at the G20, a letdown.
Taking this regional approach, an investigative lunch hour watching people entering UN headquarters in New York returned these unscientific (no Cambridge researchers were available on short notice) findings:
• Pant legs and shoe-toe boxes seem to taper more moving south through Europe. As you move east through Europe, the pant leg widens and the crease sharpens. As you move west through Europe, the crease is crisp but not going to hurt anyone, while the pant width is a personal choice, as long as it is slim. African pant widths vary by age.
• North Americans usually opt for wing-tipped shoes. If a guy is walking around in khakis? He’s either American, maybe Canadian, or gone native to North America.
As with women’s fashion, men’s style can reflect history or make a political statement.
“Gentlemen of Bacongo,” a photo-essay book published in 2009, focused on men in both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose bespoke splendor not only belied the conflicts going on in both countries but also the countries’ former French and Belgian colonizers. Speaking at the 2016 UN General Assembly debates, leaders from both Congos chose the same uniform of dark suit and white shirt, with Windsor knot ties.
That same year, the president of the nearby Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza, addressed the Assembly in traditional clothing, as did Idriss Déby Itno, president of Chad.
Like the rest of us, world leaders look for style icons whose success, both in clothing and achievement, they want to replicate.
In the last four years of his speeches at the General Assembly, Barack Obama wore a narrow lapel, two-button blue suit, a white shirt and four different shades of blue ties (polka dot, print, one color and rep striped in order), with an American-flag pin. The suit legs were not tapered but straight like most North American suits.
In his first year at the General Assembly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau played it safe, wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, a blue tie and a pin, presumably a maple leaf. At his next appearance, in 2016, Trudeau broke out the red tie and a three-piece gray suit, while trying to persuade the audience that his claim that “everyone likes Canada” was true.
Conversely, the same year, when positing to the audience that it was going to like Israel in the future and setting the stage for a Security Council seat run, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, replicated Obama’s uniform, down to the blue tie but no lapel pin.
This year, will Trudeau and Macron dictate style, repping a youthful wave of next-generation leadership or will leaders suddenly find a boxy, ill-fitting suit more appealing?
Stay tuned for the UN general debates, when these answers will be revealed as the world leaders take to the green-marble dais. On Sept. 19, opening the session, Brazil’s president Michel Temer is slated to speak first, followed by Trump and then Alpha Condé of Guinea. (France is scheduled to speak 10th on Sept. 19; Canada, 19th on Sept 20.)
*Western Europe. **Africa (Chad.)
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.