The spectacle of Colonel Gaddafi’s giant gold mermaid thing (and it had no name but thing) made me muse on the terrible taste of dictators, in both soft furnishing and clothes.
The mermaid was not Gaddafi’s most terrible crime, of course, but it is interesting because it exposed the damage that a mad man with a limitless budget can inflict on an interior. The journalist Peter York wrote a book about the way tyrants decorate their houses – it’s called Dictators’ Homes, like a style magazine with a very limited circulation. It featured Jean-Serge Bokassa of the Congo’s eagle wall thing (again I can only call it a thing, but it was really a wall made to look like an eagle) and the quite terrible taste in art of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. He liked graphic sex comics, among other things, and so he decorated his palace to look like one.
The clothes are just as bad. Dictators often veer towards the military look, which hasn’t really been fashionable since the Eighties, when Princess Diana inspected soldiers while dressed as a sort of Barbie-themed soldier, but isn’t too bad, at least in theory. It has a good cut, either slims you down or bulks you up (dictators, because they are the best examples of humans with severe control issues, are usually very fat or very thin) and it makes you look dangerous, but not insanely dangerous.
The great dictators all loved it, tweaking it according to their national colours because they wanted to match their soldiers. They sometimes order them in more outré colours too – gold, white, purple – so they look less like soldiers and more like Jewish mothers impersonating soldiers. I have yet to see a military uniform in leopard skin, the fabric most beloved of dictators, probably because it’s hard to make soldiers fire on command if their leader is dressed as a big cat. But Idi Amin surely considered it. He thought he was a leopard. (By the way, if you Google image search Idi Amin, you get a picture of a potato. And if you search Gaddafi, you get a north London mansion).
“Fidel Castro has branched out into sportswear. Dictators should not wear tracksuits”
It is when they go casual we are really in trouble. Gaddafi likes the blanket look, and used to wander round Tripoli dressed as a bed. Witness his enormous purple caftan with matching hat, of the kind beloved by fat women in Miami. (He also has it in gold (picture 1). As the mermaid proves, he has everything in gold.) Fidel Castro (picture 2), who used to look almost normal in his worker caps, has recently branched out into sportswear, a look that really doesn’t suit him. Dictators should not wear tracksuits. It looks weird. On one occasion Castro had the nerve to wear plaid, which must have really freaked out the CIA, because only Americans wear plaid, and Castro is their sworn enemy, and has never been anywhere near a Texas diner, where everyone wears plaid.
Why do they do it? Why the screaming need for the wrong kind of attention? The answer is in the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. If you aren’t going to complain when Gaddafi is killing people, you aren’t going to say you hate his fat-woman caftan and matching hat. Fashion people are brave, it is true, but not that brave. They will wear a basque made of dyed chicken feathers, but they will not stick a gun in their mouths by telling a tyrant he looks like an idiot who will, if the wind changes, turn into an angry balloon, and float away. Much better to say, “Yes, the purple caftan is so your colour. It would look even better in gold though!”
Sadly, with the fall of Gaddafi, the flamboyant tyrant look may wane. Its apogee was Jean-Serge Bokassa of the Congo, who was crowned in front of a giant gold eagle in a floorlength red bat cape and huge plastic crown. He looked like a mad toy. But the new generation, fearful of mass media and the Arab Spring, will play it safe, which means disappointing, well-cut suits in sensible colours. Stand on Savile Row and you will see them, getting in and out of Mercedes. This is sad, because they will look less ridiculous, and be harder to laugh at, which is what we surely need. But other things are sadder, so I give it only the status of minor tragedy. And we still have the memory of the eagle, and the mermaid.
Main picture credits: Rex Features
What's your view? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Stylist's regular columnist Lucy Mangan is on maternity leave.