what do your clothes say about you?

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As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss join forces to become the next Tory leader, it’s not just what they say that adds inches. Their sartorial statements also speak volumes.

Last week, stories about what the candidates were wearing had them in opposite corners – with vastly different budgets. Truss’ £4.50 earrings from Claire’s Accessories were contrasted with Sunak’s big-budget style choices, including a pair of £450 Prada loafers and a £3,500 tailored suit.

If politicians’ clothes are always analyzed – 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 the status that these goods try to signal. That begs the question: how do style status symbols work in 2022?

Liz Truss arrives at the BBC's Conservative Party leadership debate last week

Liz Truss last week. Nadine Dorries highlighted her choice of earrings. Photo: Reuters

Even during a cost of living crisis, fashion’s expensive status symbols retain power and remain popular with consumers. Financial results for fashion brands were published for the first half of 2022 last week. Revenue rose 48% at Moncler, where a short down jacket with the bear logo on the sleeve costs £1,235. At the conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, revenue in the second quarter of 2022 increased by 19%, with luxury handbags credited. A classic monogrammed Louis Vuitton Speedy costs £1,030. Meanwhile, Sunak’s favourite, Prada, saw its first half sales rise by 22%. The popular Cleo shoulder bag – with the Prada 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: The Force of Fashion. “It’s the way we make our bodies socially legible.” The symbols change over time. “The way you show strength and power may be different in 2022 than 2016 or 2012,” she explains.

Status symbols of any moment are defined by what the dominant elite looks like. In the digital age, it’s the super-rich of Silicon Valley, figures more likely to wear hoodies and sneakers than the suits of the traditional establishment. Mark Zuckerberg, hardly a style icon in the conventional sense, was behind this shift. McClendon argues that his casual outfits were “a really deliberate thumb on the nose of the appropriate sense of success on Wall Street. Because, at the end of the day, what this is about is how any given era or any given individual tries to define success and power.”

Some public figures pick up working-class tropes to align themselves with something that seems more authentic

Daniel Rodgers

Sunak has bought into the Silicon Valley definition. For photos of him working on the budget at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he was pictured in a hoodie from Californian brand Everlane, a choice meant to frame him as a poster boy of modern success and prosperity.

Discussion around status symbols also takes place in the class and who is “allowed” to wear these coveted items. This also changes over time. Twenty years ago, Danniella Westbrook was on the cover of Sun in head-to-toe Burberry check, causing outrage – and the fashion house to reduce the amount of checks it used for fear of alienating its upper-class customer base. Daniel Rodgers, a fashion writer who wrote about the impact of Westbrook’s outfit, says the look would be less disruptive 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.”

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July.

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July. Photo: Pierre Suu/Getty Images

However, he sees women in the public still provoking outrage for stepping outside their perceived boundaries. “Kim Kardashian is an example,” he says. “Pre Kanye, when she started getting dressed by luxury houses like Givenchy, people were like, ‘why is this Page Three girl even getting access to this in the first place?’ It really displaces many [ideas of] class. It’s something so built into us, so for someone to transgress those boundaries, for many people, it’s offensive, [because it’s] does not respect that kind of natural order in the world.”

Signifiers are further complicated by the fact that status can now derive from the “coolness” and authenticity often associated with working-class culture. “There are pop stars or public figures who try to pick up working-class tropes and conform to something that seems more authentic,” says Rodgers.

Rachel Worth, author of the 2020 book Fashion and class, says this is not new. She points to the French Revolution when “it became dangerous to wear high-class fabrics such as silk. While it looked random and the working class became politically correct.”

Worth, whose upcoming book is focused on sustainability, also argues that status can now come from signaling that you are conscious of your carbon footprint. “These things go in cycles,” she says. “In the 19th century, secondhand was far superior, even for working people. It’s like we’ve come back to it.”

“It is fashion to be a savvy consumer,” says Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, “to know where your clothes came from, to carefully curate your wardrobe and show appreciation for the more refined the things in life.”

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In public, this is either – as with the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex – demonstrated through reusing outfits or – as with Carrie Johnson – renting an outfit. Last year she wore a rented dress to marry the Prime Minister. In this context, Sunaks and Truss’ conspicuous consumption of new goods, whether fast fashion or high-end, can be seen as bad form, in the same way that Kylie Jenner’s boast of using her private jet to travel 17 minutes between two Californian airports triggered her brand as a “climate criminal” in a viral tweet.

McClendon says what the two candidates are wearing communicates different statuses. If Sunak’s are “classic symbols of wealth – the tailored suit, the designer duds”, Truss’s earrings are “a sort of reverse status [symbol] … It is a sense of status, of power within a democratic system, representing the people.”

Charlie Porter, the author of What artists wear, believes Truss’s choice to wear fast fashion watches with her cheap thrills policy. “[She] campaigning to cut taxes for short-term feel-good benefit, he says. “The promise is more disposable income in the face of rising fuel and grocery 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 poach the wealthy while still being objects of desire and ambition”.

She adds: “I think we are in a very complicated moment with wealth because there is both the prolonged pandemic, the inflation, the economic problems, but also sustainability. It makes the aspiration very complicated.” Style status symbols are alive and well in 2022, but as always, it’s far from easy.

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