Boris Johnson, style icon

Boris Johnson. Picture from Flickr: Think London

OK, clearly this time you’ll think I’ve gone mad. But I was watching the excellent “This Week” last night and they had what they described as “fashion bully” Trinny Woodall discussing politicians and how they dress.

They went through the inevitable isn’t-Nick-Clegg-well-tailored-these-days routine (of course he is, he’s deputy PM and has to represent us abroad) and how Barack Obama adds stature to a suit rather than the other way around. They also mentioned how a number of Labour activists in the 1980s tried to break the mould a bit when they took to wearing deliberately scruffy and out of place clothes on the podium, making sure they didn’t look the classic politician part at all. This backfired on them because ordinary people expect someone to make a bit of effort when they’re rolling up to the front door and asking for a vote.

Conversation then turned to two politicians: Ken Clarke and Boris Johnson. Michael Portillo said people actually liked Ken Clarke’s bad shoes, and they loved Boris Johnson in spite of the appalling dress sense.

Actually in my view both of these men are pulling the same trick as the Labour men in the 1980s – but doing it rather better.

The thing about the Labour types was that they were deliberately shunning smart appearance. This wasn’t “I’m not wearing a suit”, it was “I’m wearing anything I damned well like”. This is the right thing to do in all sorts of contexts but not when you’re looking for support from complete strangers, businesspeople etc.

Boris and Ken play a much more subtle game. They wear the suits but then get something slightly wrong. Clarke famously wears his suede Hush Puppies, and Johnson was once caught out on “Have I Got News for You” by comedian Paul Merton, who said he’d had neat hair before the show and only after going into makeup did he look dishevelled. This isn’t “I’m wearing what I like”, it’s “I’m playing the game and putting the suit on but I’m not immaculate and flawless, I’m ordinary and average just like you.” The voter identifies with the politician and some sort of rapport is struck.

The really clever bit is that neither of these guys is ordinary or average, and my guess is that Johnson in particular knows exactly how to play on his image. That’s a debate for somewhere else – but don’t ever believe that someone with Boris Johnson’s upbringing doesn’t know exactly what to ask for from a tailor, nor how to look immaculate should he so choose.


12 thoughts on “Boris Johnson, style icon

  1. Boris is a cock and people hate/laugh at him. He's not a style guru, he's an absolutely typical scruffy toff – there are thousands of Borises at cricket clubs throughout the land – and his lack of interest in his own appearance is a good reflection of his lack of interest in following through on policy. The only good news is that this applies to bad ideas as well as his very rare good ones, which is why, in his time as London Mayor, he has barely done anything at all.


  2. Never mind all this sitting on the fence…

    But the Paul Merton incident (see blog entry) tells me that Boris is well aware of his appearance and its impact. It's quite consistent not to be a supporter but to acknowledge he's a great media performer, and he uses his image to stand out.


  3. > Johnson was once caught out on “Have I Got News for You” by comedian Paul Merton, who said he'd had neat hair before the show and only after going into makeup did he look dishevelled.

    Merton's a comedian. That, like Johnson, is a joke.


  4. There's a bit in the excellent 'Watching the English' book ( where the author talks about how the Upper Classes don't need to worry about appearance – it's a middle class obsession.

    So, I partly agree with Guy that Boris is clever enough to know what he is doing with his image (I actually believe that love him or loathe him Boris is a very skilled politician) and partly agree with Kate Fox that his upbringing leads him to believe that doesn't need to care anyway.


  5. I'm a mortgage adviser and we have to present ourselves in a business-like fashion.
    How can you take advice from someone who looks like they can't be bothered to make the effort to look good?
    It's all well and good trying to appear like the people you are helping but if you don't look like you mean business, can you really do the business?
    If you look like a dog's dinner then your paperwork and consequently their case could well be as shoddy.
    Imagine being in court on a murder charge and Boris is your barrister. He comes bumbling in, spilling papers all over the show. Your first thought would be “I wonder how many years I'm going to get?”
    Then again, London is a pretty scruffy place. Perhaps he's the ideal image after all.


  6. Thanks for commenting, Tony. I'd counter that with the Richard Branson syndrome – certainly he's anti-suit and he's been taken less than seriously in the City as a result of failing to adopt the uniform, but he's not a notorious failure. Would I rather take notes on successful speechmaking from him, Boris or Gerald Ratner, whose prawn sandwich crack still follows him around? And who's the best turned out of them..?


  7. Good point Guy. Don't judge a book by it's cover as they say.
    I'd rather not wear a suit myself but if I turn up at a client's house dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt then it's doubtful I'd get a second appointment.
    As Patrick pointed out, it's a “toff” thing with Boris. I remember a couple of years ago having a meeting with a prominent local solicitor who was wearing a tie with so many stains on it, it was hard to see where the pattern ended and the stains began! It looked like an old favourite. For him it was his reputation and his service that mattered. The battered old suit and crusty tie were just a uniform he had to wear.
    It's an interesting debate, though. Attire shouldn't matter, it's just that it does.
    PS. Wasn't Gerald Ratner famous for his “crap jewellery” quote?


  8. > PS. Wasn't Gerald Ratner famous for his “crap jewellery” quote?

    Same quote – he said he sold crap jewellery and a Marks and Spencers prawn sandwich was worth more than some of it (or words to that effect).


  9. Boris is remembered for embarassing the nation prattling on about 'Wiff waff' in Beijing. Ratner built two successful businesses, Johnson became Mayor of London by writing nonsense in the Spectator and making an arse of himself on HIGNFY. I'll take Gerald's advice over Boris' any day…


  10. I think your being slightly generous when it comes old Boris… He has always reminded me of an antiques dealer. Clearly from ´good stock´ but a bit scruffy… Probably because he actually earns zero and is waiting for some kind of inheritance… Clothes and style are unnecessary expenses. Then, in a position where he has some cash thinks; wait a minute… I got this far looking like this, i´m comfortable, why change?


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