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21 July 2023

Politicians should never wear trainers

No fashion can camouflage political insincerity.

By Kara Kennedy

When I was 16 I had a terrible boyfriend whose only redeemable quality was his wonderful taste in trainers. He was a football casual with a swastika tattoo (don’t ask, it wasn’t even the worst one), a bad attitude and an affinity for sleeping with other women – or to be more accurate, as I was just a kid, girls. About a year into the relationship he cheated on me while he was on holiday in Portugal; his friend told his girlfriend who in turn told me. Upon hearing the news, instead of crying or wondering what it was about my 16-year-old self that made this good 24-year-old man stray, I put on my shoes, went to his house, and stole his favourite pair of trainers.

I think I got about £300 for them on Ebay – they were a limited-edition pair of Adidas trainers – which I used, naturally, to buy myself a pair of limited-edition Adidas trainers. Yellow with black stripes. Poetic justice. For the sake of legal reasons everything above is a joke and I don’t know what you’re talking about, officer, I’d never do that. I’m not that kind of girl. 

But since that (fictitious) day, trainers have held a symbolic importance to me. They represent revenge, fresh starts and my arsehole ex-boyfriend. 

Since then I have learned everything there is to know about trainers, about football casuals, and how this aesthetic – of which footwear is the pinnacle – came from football skinheads. To outwit unwanted attention from security guards and police officers, the skinheads geared up in expensive Italian brands that looked far too costly for any hooligan to afford. While trainers were, from their inception in the late 19th-century, invented for use on tennis and croquet courts, for some reason they have always been more associated with the uniform of the working class. But times have changed, and over the past decade, or perhaps longer, trainers have been transformed into a political pawn.

Matt Hancock, the humiliated MP, I’m a Celebrity contestant and serial snogger, has recently traded in dress shoes for trainers because he is “dressed like my constituents”. Last month he was spotted at the National Portrait Gallery looking like he’d shoved on the closest pair of shoes to take out the bins. When asked about his fashion choice, he replied, “I basically think only school teachers and politicians wear suits,” which is cool and funny and ironic because he, who is in fact a politician, turned up to an event in an untucked shirt, chinos and some circa £150 Vejas trainers. The Paris-based sustainable brand is a telling choice: they went viral after Meghan Markle wore them, back when people liked her, and at least to me, are associated with champagne socialists who have more money than style. The people of West Suffolk must be flattered.

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As cringe as he is, Hancock isn’t the first politician to tactically dress down for the sake of relatability. Across the pond there is a bizarre trend sweeping Capitol Hill that is a hybrid of a trainer and dress shoe. A tragic attempt to spice up workwear, the “dress sneaker”, as it has been donned, comes in different styles. Some are more formal: suede or leather brogues. Some have a very pronounced or ridged outsole. All are undeniably awful and I shake my head anytime I see a young, attractive, DC yuppy in a shiny suit with one of these abominations on their feet. The cult menswear commentator Derek Guy called dress sneakers a, “completely new phenomenon not seen even as recently as the Trump white house”. The New York Times added they were “a clear lapse in dignity, if not actual protocol”.

In Britain, our greatest folly is wanting politicians to be more like us. We scold them, even prime ministers, for flying on private jets and having fancy things that we don’t have, which has resulted in this if-I-wear-trainers-I’m-just-like-them phenomenon. They are even guilty of doing it to each other. Nadine Dorries once tweeted: “Liz Truss will be travelling the country wearing her earrings which cost circa £4.50 from Claire’s Accessories. Meanwhile Rishi visits Teesside in Prada shoes worth £450 and sported a £3,500 bespoke suit as he prepared for crunch leadership vote.” 

Dorries was soon shown up, after an interview was unearthed in which she bragged about owning £6,000 earrings. But for the life of me, I can’t fathom why anyone would want politicians to be “just like us”. (And if I thought that any of my outfits looked even slightly similar to one Theresa May would don on a night out in Maidenhead, I would immediately set fire to it and deny it ever existed.) I can only wish for them to be smarter; more professional, more moral, more boring. I want them to be tremendously unrelatable, and most importantly: I don’t want them to wear trainers. 

The politicians in sneakers trend has caught on enough that a few weeks ago, the Congressional Sneaker Caucus – yes, that’s a thing – held its first official sneaker day in the US Capitol. The caucus was started earlier this year, one outlet said, to “start a bipartisan conversation about updating the House dress code”. By wearing Gucci sneakers and Jordans, Representative Jared Moskowitz claims that they are at the forefront of “a generational change”, adding “we don’t wear powdered wigs here anymore”. Maybe you should, Jared. If it’ll stop you acting like teenagers. Representative Summer L Lee claimed that Sneaker Day allowed the House reps to really “look at the antiquated dress code for men and women”. My favourite quote was from another representative, Hakeem Jeffries, who claimed, “Today, in a unique way… we are representing the American people.” The American people that commented underneath one video showing these politicians were less than impressed. “Maybe, instead of spending time showing off Gucci sneakers, they can pass some gun control legislation to stop kids from getting murdered in schools?” one said. Another said, “Ha. Cool! I can’t afford healthcare.” 

You could say that politicians aren’t dissimilar to football casuals. Both are engaging in fashion camouflage. Michelle Obama was an all-American, fist-pumping sweetheart but one who was educated, attractive and empowered. Most importantly, she wore trainers. This meant that she understood the American people at their core. When Liz Truss became prime minister she swapped her heels for white pumps; apparently she wanted to be comfortable for the chaotic 44 days. One publication used the headline, “Is Liz Truss’s attitude to being Prime Minister as casual as her attire?” And while I don’t believe that everybody in high office should be forced to dress like Jacob Rees-Mogg, a little effort to look professional couldn’t hurt. 

If you’re wondering if I ever had my comeuppance for what I would call a wholly justifiable petty theft, years later I dated a particularly mad man that called me up because he wanted to see me. After telling him I was busy and wouldn’t be able to make it, a photo came through on WhatsApp. 

Through the amber of a pretty big blaze, I saw them. My limited-edition Adidas trainers. The yellow ones with black stripes. This incident might explain why I have strong feelings when it comes to trainers. Joan Didion once said that “style is character”, and in her essay, “On Self-Respect”, she says that “character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” These politicians have no self-respect, because they don’t really want to wear trainers. They want us to think that they want to wear trainers. But what they don’t understand is that we wouldn’t hold it against them if they invested in a nice pair of dress shoes.

[See also: The Shein influencer trip shouldn’t have shocked us]

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