There is something strangely baffling about Nigel Farage, despite his presentation of himself as a straightforward man of the people, which is perhaps most evident in the peculiar matter of his coat. Velvet-collared, knee-length, tan-coloured, it is a variation of a Crombie or “covert” coat, originally designed for equestrian purposes. By the late 19th century, it was as likely to be sported by a gentleman out and about in London as on the hunting field, hence the Victorian illustrations of the pugilistic Marquess of Queensberry punching his son on a city street while wearing a covert coat.
Queensberry’s unfortunate son was, of course, Lord Alfred Douglas, the friend and lover of Oscar Wilde; and both father and son contributed to Wilde’s downfall. Now, you might feel that a homosexual scandal dating back to 1895 has little to do with the sartorial choices of the Ukip leader but in the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
I have no idea whether Farage is a fan of Oscar Wilde, but he has certainly shown himself willing to pass judgement on another man’s dress sense. In 2010 he stood up in the European Parliament and told Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. At the time of this attack, the Ukip leader was wearing an unremarkable grey suit that looked almost identical to that of the man he was condemning; since then, however, Farage has chosen to campaign in rather more striking outfits.
Yet if we are to follow suit and judge by appearances, the message of his coat is no less mysterious. For if at first the covert coat was a signifier of the upper-class elite, it was subsequently adopted by the landed gentry and the racing fraternity, then became part of a Sixties skinhead uniform, and thereafter took on even more raffish connotations. Hence its appearances in Eighties television series such as Minder, where George Cole wore a covert coat to play the roguish Arthur Daley, as did David Jason as Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses.
Thus Farage’s coat is suggestive of a number of different meanings, from gentlemanly sporting pursuits to working-class aggression. And though it seems unlikely that it is the cut of this coat that has attracted Richard Desmond to Farage, the owner of the Express Newspapers group did say on 16 April that he was donating £1m to Ukip because he was “fed up with the floppy-haired Eton club”.
As it happens, the belligerent Marquess of Queensberry was also suspicious of Eton; indeed, when his wife put down their son’s name for the school, Queensberry was horrified, saying that he didn’t want the boy to be turned into a “Belgravian loafer”. Instead, Douglas was educated at Winchester and Oxford, where he became a floppy-haired poet. Worse still, at least in his father’s eyes, was his relationship with Wilde, whom Queensberry later accused, in a misspelled note, as “posing as a Somdomite”.
These threads of history may be entirely irrelevant to the present election campaign and yet they remain intriguing. Desmond made his fortune through a publishing empire that included pornographic magazines (and a gay monthly title, Attitude, that would have inflamed Queensberry). He himself was educated at Christ’s College, Finchley (until he left at 14); yet his dislike of floppy-haired Etonians was not sufficient to stop him having dinner with David Cameron at Chequers in 2011. Nor has Farage’s private education at Dulwich College prevented Desmond’s support for Ukip. “It’s a party for good, ordinary British people,” he declared in a statement in the Express. “It is not run by elitists.” The accompanying photograph showed Desmond together with Farage as the newspaper proprietor handed over his donation; each man was wearing a pinstriped suit and a grin.
As for the covert coat: well, it’s still out and about at the head of what the Express calls “Mr Farage’s People’s Army”. Oddly, all of this reminds me of a leader’s coat from long ago: Michael Foot’s so-called “donkey jacket”, a short, dark green coat that he wore to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 1981. His enemies said it was a disgrace that the leader of the opposition should look like “a navvy”; in fact, Foot’s wife had bought the coat from Harrods at considerable expense and it was admired by the Queen Mother, who said it was “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this”.
“I never dreamt this was going to cause such trouble,” said Foot in later years, reflecting on his coat and the “wounding caricatures” that followed. Could it be that history will see Foot as a gentlemanly character, dressed in seemly attire, unlike some of the spivs and turncoats now seeking influence and power?
Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar