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14 May 2001

Oooh, suit you for the polls, sir

Election 2001 - To assess a politician, look at the lapels, the buttons and the vents

By Annalisa Barbieri

Should you meet a politician in the next few weeks, and not be certain of his politics by his conversation (so few of them express a strong opinion in public), look at his lapels. Nine out of ten Conservative Party members wear double-breasted suits – ergo, peaked or wide lapels. And about eight out of ten Labour activists wear single-breasted suits with lapels of varying degrees of modesty.

William Hague bucks the trend here. He wears single-breasted suits that boast an astonishingly good cut and narrow, posh lapels. Charles Kennedy also favours the single-breasted suit, but wears with it a too-wide tie, the sort usually associated with double-breasted suits. A little bit of both, you could say. As for Blair, well, his jacket has only one row of buttons, but what does it matter? It’s so shoddily worn, so thrown together, it’s definitely humble.

Double-breasted suits were traditionally used to create a more masculine, athletic silhouette – big shoulders, tapering to the waist and fitting snugly on the hips, hinting at a strong, capable body underneath. At least that was the idea. They also hinted at a wealthier lifestyle, especially after the war – double-breasted suits were actually banned in wartime France, because they used up too much fabric.

The shoulders on these suits were important because big shoulders equalled power. Indeed, this fashionable equation dates back to the Renaissance, when men doing business would try to outdo each other by the size of “their” shoulders. Perhaps it is not so difficult to see why the double-breasted suit has become the uniform of choice among Hague’s classmates.

The double-breasted suit is the less fashionable at the moment, although it is my duty to point out that some forecasters predict that it’s due for a comeback soon.

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There is one minor (but, I feel, important) detail to look out for whenever an MP turns his back on you: vents. A double-breasted suit should always have two, never one, vent. One vent is the norm on a single-breasted jacket, but with the two-button (and longer-cut) jacket, two vents are needed to enable a gentleman to put his hands in his pockets, and to sit down with the minimum of creasing.

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The single-breasted suit hints at an altogether different man. It’s leaner, sharper, not so indulgent, not to mention far more modern. You can see why Labour people (and Hague, who is trying hard, the love) choose it as their team kit.

But new Labour does less well with its buttons. Upon standing, a gentleman should always do up his jacket. It shows breeding. In the House of Commons, this may prove difficult, with all the standing up and sitting down that MPs do. But come on! It only takes a second of preparation. Yet in my recent observations, only Labour’s John Grogan fastened himself up. And he needn’t have bothered, as he did up all three buttons, which is the most unforgivable gaffe. To be correct, one should only do up the middle of the three buttons.

However, this can, admittedly, look odd. In which case it’s the top two buttons that should be done up. According to the sartorial scriptures, this hints at a certain flirtatiousness. To do up only the top button shows an indifference to dress; to do up only the bottom one (yuck!) hints at a lowly affectation; and to do up all the buttons means you’re too uptight.

So who are the secret fashion weapons in each party at the moment? Well, judging by their battledress alone, it goes like this. In the Labour Party, it’s not Gordon Brown with his Timothy Everest suits, although they are nice. It’s Jack Straw. Yes, it took me by surprise, too. I could barely take my eyes off him during Question Time (it’s scary what becomes relatively attractive, after a while). Among the Conservatives, it’s Hague: the man may never get to run the country, but he can sure wear a suit. Menzies Campbell is a man so immaculately dressed that I can barely believe he’s an MP, let alone a Liberal Democrat. But then, he is also a QC.

Despite the gold stars these men earn for their suits and their parties, they all – just like 99 per cent of their colleagues – have a tendency to leave their jackets undone when they stand to address the House. And you have to ask questions about a man who is so eager to get across his point of view that he cannot take the one second necessary to present himself correctly. These days, it’s all content and no style.

Annalisa Barbieri is the New Statesman‘s election fashion correspondent