As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss aim to become the next Tory leader, it’s not just what they say that’s gaining column inches. Their sartorial statements also speak volumes.
Last week, stories about what the candidates were wearing had them in opposing corners — with vastly different budgets. Truss’ £4.50 earrings from Claire’s Accessories contrasted with Sunak’s big-budget style choices, including a pair of £450 Prada suits and a £3,500 bespoke suit.
If politicians’ clothes are always scrutinized – think Theresa May’s quirky leopard kitten heels or Barack Obama’s rolled-up sleeves – the debate over what Sunak and Truss are wearing comes against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis. It is focused around the price and status that these items try to signal. It begs the question: how do style status symbols work in 2022?
Even during a cost of living crisis, expensive fashion status symbols retain power and remain popular with consumers. Financial results for the fashion brands were released for the first half of 2022 last week. Revenue rose 48% at Moncler, where a short jacket with a bear logo on the sleeve costs £1,235. At conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, revenue in the second quarter of 2022 rose 19%, with luxury handbags credited. A classic monogrammed Louis Vuitton Speedy costs £1,030. Meanwhile, Sunak’s favorite Prada saw first-half sales jump 22%. Her signature Cleo shoulder bag – featuring Prada’s triangle logo – costs £1,800.
“Clothing has been deeply embedded with status for millennia because clothing is a social language,” says Emma McClendon, fashion historian and author of Power Mode: Fashion Force. “This is how we make our bodies socially legible.” Symbols change over time. “The way you show strength and power may be different in 2022 than in 2016 or 2012,” she explains.
The status symbols of any moment are defined by what the dominant elite looks like. In the digital age, this is the Silicon Valley of the super-rich, figures more likely to be in hoodies and trainers than traditional establishment suits. Mark Zuckerberg, hardly a style icon in the conventional sense, engineered this change. McClendon argues that his casual clothing was “a real conscious jab in the nose at Wall Street’s sense of success. Because, at the end of the day, what it comes down to is how any given era or any individual of certain is trying to define success and power.”
Sunak has bought the definition of Silicon Valley. For photos of him working on the budget at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he was photographed wearing a hoodie from Californian brand Everlane, a choice intended to frame him as a poster boy for contemporary success and prosperity.
Discussion about status symbols also takes place in the classroom and who is “allowed” to wear these coveted items. This also changes over time. Twenty years ago, Danniella Westbrook was on the cover of the magazine the sun at the Burberry head-to-toe check, sparking outrage – and the fashion house reducing the amount of check it used for fear of alienating its high-end customer base. Daniel Rodgers, a fashion writer who wrote about the impact of Westbrook’s outfit, says the look would be less divisive now. “It’s increasingly difficult to tell whether someone is middle class, working class or upper class because of the way the internet and social media have blurred all those markers.”
However, he sees women in the public eye still provoking outrage for stepping outside their perceived boundaries. “Kim Kardashian is an example,” he says. “Before Kanye, when she started getting dressed by luxury houses like Givenchy, people were like, ‘why does this basically Page Three girl have access to this?’ It really moves a lot of people [ideas of] class. It’s something that’s so ingrained in us, so for someone to cross those boundaries, for many people, it’s offensive, [because it’s] not respecting the kind of natural order in the world.”
The signifiers are further complicated by the fact that status can now come from the “cool” and originality often associated with working-class culture. “There are pop stars or public figures who try to take working-class tropes and align themselves with something that feels more authentic,” says Rodgers.
Rachel Worth, author of 2020 Fashion and Class, says this is not new. She tells of the French revolution when “it became dangerous to wear high-class fabrics like silk. As it seemed casual and working class it became politically correct.”
Worth, whose upcoming book focuses on sustainability, also argues that status can now come from signaling that you are aware of your carbon footprint. “These things go in cycles,” she says. “In the 19th century, the use of secondhand was much higher, even for working people. It’s like we’re back to it.”
“It’s fashionable to be a knowledgeable consumer,” admits Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, “to know where your clothes came from, to curate your clothes carefully and show appreciation for the finer things. in life.”
In the public eye, this is either – as with the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex – demonstrated through re-dressing or – as with Carrie Johnson – renting an outfit. Last year she wore a rented dress to marry the prime minister. In this context, the conspicuous consumption of new items from Sunak and Truss, whether fast fashion or high-end, can be seen as bad form, in the same way that Kylie Jenner’s boast of using the plane her private to travel 17 minutes between two airports in California caused it. being called a “climate criminal” in a viral tweet.
McClendon says what the two candidates wear communicates different status. If Sunaks are “classic symbols of wealth – the bespoke suit, the style designer”, Truss’ earrings are “a kind of status quo [symbol] … There is a sense of status, of power within a democratic system, representing the people.”
Charlie Porter, author of What artists wear, believes Truss’s choice to wear fast fashion sounds with her exciting cheap politics. “[She] is campaigning to cut taxes for short-term feel-good benefits,” he says. “The promise is for more disposable income in the face of rising fuel and food bills. Disposable income usually means shopping. Shopping makes people feel good in the short term, often at the expense of what might do them good in the long term.” Sunak’s luxury items, meanwhile, “can be used to enrich the rich, being still objects of desire and aspiration”.
She adds: “I think we are in a really complicated moment with wealth, because there is also the prolonged pandemic, inflation, financial problems, but also sustainability. That makes aspiration really complicated.” Style status symbols are alive and well in 2022, but, as always, it’s far from simple.