A fabric fit for a Chancellor?

Observations on fashion

Where Tony Blair has gone wrong is that he's never worn velvet. If ever he looks out of his bomb-proof car windows these days, he may notice there are rather a lot of velvet jackets being worn au moment, by the younger, more fashionable male electorate. (Three-button, single-breasted velvet jackets only, please; don't ever be tempted to be fully velvet-clad during daytime.) Perhaps his new best friend, Colonel Gaddafi, who wore a velvet cap at their meeting last month, might persuade him. And if President Bush wore velvet, Blair would no doubt be forced to follow. But I fear velvet just isn't a political fabric.

"I can't think of one MP that wears velvet," says the political columnist Alan Watkins. "Lord Gowrie does, but then he's not an MP. No, not one." Winston Churchill was one of the few statesmen brave enough to wear velvet, but only at home and only in later life (he was particularly partial to red and green).

Why the growing fashion for velvet during the day? It seems that men need a little sartorial pampering at the moment because, as the Daily Mail often tells us, it's a scary world out there. "Velvet," sniffs one of my male friends, weighed down by a mortgage, business rates and new-baby costs, "is our little bit of luxury."

This is as may be, but velvet just isn't seen as businesslike, which is why it takes a very confident man, or a university lecturer, to wear it between the hours of 9am and 6pm. (A withering critique by a woman in 1773 described a dinner companion's "pale purple velvet coat" as "at best only a fool's coat".) Moreover, it's seen as not a little indulgent. It's such a deliciously nuzzly, tactile fabric that it simply can't be worn by the man who fears a stray hand or seven frolicking up and down his sleeve. It's also a shallow fabric; it's all about show. Turn it over and it is crushingly plain. Only brocade and satin can match it for B-side disappointment.

The other problem with velvet is that it doesn't photograph well - it absorbs light, appearing dead and flat - and less charismatic politicians can't afford to appear any more boring than they already are. A possible solution here would be to wear the more reflective panne velvet - velvet that has literally taken a beating - just right at the moment for Blair, you may think.

If it seems odd for such an obvious evening look to be making it into daytime, it's not. The tuxedo, invented more than a century ago in America, was originally an informal jacket, to be worn when mingling with family and friends.

So I feel it's only a matter of time before some fashionable chap in parliament is the first to pick up on this new trend. My eyes are on Gordon Brown. He has the charisma to counteract the photography problem (plus his hair provides reflection enough) and, with a leadership battle looming, I wonder if he will start to take the lead in the fashionable jacket stakes. The problem is, he can't really do this while still Chancellor. It would just show too much cockiness: velvet was the subject of sumptuary laws for three centuries, passed to stop anyone below the rank of knight wearing even a smidgen of the stuff. I suspect Brown will start wearing moleskin first and build up to a bit of velour before launching himself arms first into some proper deep pile.