Where do Dictators Get Their Wardrobes From?

(Forbes) The Devil Wears Taupe

Not all the world’s dictators are clotheshorses, but as these leaders show, sometimes politics, power, and polyester combine to make fashion magic.

Libya’s peacock: Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi may be the ultimate dictator-showman, and his personal style reflects his outsize behavior on the world stage. Qaddafi is most often seen sporting long, flowing, brown robes that represent his hometown of Sirte, a Bedouin village in the middle of the Libyan Desert. But he also has a strong sense of occasion. For African summits, the “King of Kings” of Africa dons dashikis or more elaborate costumes, as seen above. Other times, he goes for the full-on military dictator look, complete with epaulets and beret. And who could forget the layered milk-chocolate-colored satin outfit (complete with black beret and a pin in the silhouette of Africa) that he wore at last year’s U.N. General Assembly session? It made diplomats almost forget that he talked for over 90 minutes, rambling that the Security Council should be called the “terror council,” demanding an investigation into the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and offering to move the United Nations to Libya (to reduce jet lag for fellow dignitaries).

It’s all about the taupe: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has recently gone from man of mystery to international fashion icon. While the North Korean media frequently spit out unintentionally comedic headlines, it seemed oddly appropriate when the country’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun boasted in April that Kim’s trademark khaki jumpsuit was now “chic.” Could it be his look — “two-piece army suit, bouffant hairdo, Ray-ban sunglasses, and platform shoes,” as one ABC reporter put it — offers some inspiration during these austere times? In any case, his fashion sense has more to do with function than form. Apparently, the often paunchy-looking ecru garment conceals a bullet-proof vest, while the hairdo and the shoes are height enhancers for the diminutive dictator.

Western is so last season: The president of Iran is not one for frills, opting instead for a relaxed minimalist aesthetic, what you might call “dictator business casual.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is most often seen sporting dark trousers, a solid-color button-down with the collar open, and his trademark khaki jacket, reportedly a Chinese-made $30 windbreaker he picked up at the Tehran bazaar. His distaste for ties probably says more about Iranian dress code than any American-style attempt to identify with the common man. In Iran, ties, no matter how chic, are frowned upon. Either way, those smoldering eyes and ever-present five-day stubble make Mahmoud our kind of roguish.

The brothers Castro: Fidel and Raúl Castro have for decades set the standard in dress for guerrillas-turned-autocrats. Their classic olive-green and biege military uniforms, clearly pulled from some Batcave-like closet filled with rows upon rows of identical outfits, have been adopted across the globe. Raúl, the current Cuban president, still mostly sticks with the old standard, though he occasionally dons sleek Western suits for more formal occasions and is partial to the simple guayabera, a traditional Latin American short-sleeved button-down shirt. Fidel, in his twilight years, occasionally dresses down a bit, perhaps reflecting his attempts to transform himself from pariah to statesman. Maybe it’s just the elastic waistband: These days, you can even see the former Commandante rocking a Carl Lewis-like tracksuit. According to the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, “Fidel is the guy who looks like Fidel if Fidel shopped at L.L. Bean.”

Power and pocket squares: Only a true fashion icon keeps it together during the worst of times. After leading the fight for an independent Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), Robert Mugabe dressed the part, heralding a responsible new era of African leadership that both looked to the West while embracing independence. And though Zimbabwe has become a pariah state with negative economic growth and insane inflation, he has stayed suave and slick to this day, with tie and pocket square always perfectly matched. Those pressed suits and ties come direct from the designer — and are so coveted that his wardrobe, worth millions of dollars, was stolen by thieves in 2009. Perhaps his wife, nicknamed the First Shopper of Zimbabwe, helped him restock.

Red is the new black: Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, doesn’t just love red for its warm, earthy tones: For the so-called Gorila Rojo (Red Guerrilla), the color hearkens back to Simón Bolívar, the independence hero of Latin America who frequently sported a red collar piece, as well as the bold flag of communism. As art and design blogger Frederico Duarte notes, Chávez has three favorite red outfits, ranging from dictator-classic to resort wear: military garb with red beret, suit with red tie, and “Lastly, the untucked, plain (not at all times though) red shirt over red t-shirt is Chávez’s civilian, relaxed, tropical wear.”

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