As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss compete to become the next Conservative leader, it’s not just what they say that wins columns. 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 contrasted with Sunak’s big-budget style choices, including a £450 pair of Prada loafers and a £3,500 bespoke suit.
While politicians’ clothes are still analyzed — think Theresa May’s eccentric leopard-print kitten heels or Barack Obama’s rolled-up sleeves — the debate over what Sunak and Truss wear is set against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis. It focuses on the price and status that these items are trying to signal. This begs the question: how do style status symbols work in 2022?
Even during a cost of living crisis, expensive fashion status symbols retain their power and remain popular with consumers. The fashion brands’ financial results were released last week for the first half of 2022. Revenue rose 48% at Moncler, where a cropped puffer jacket with the bear logo on the sleeve costs £1,235. At conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, second-quarter 2022 revenue rose 19%, with luxury bags credited. A classic Louis Vuitton Speedy with monogram costs £1,030. Meanwhile, Sunak favorite Prada saw first-half sales rise 22%. Its popular Cleo shoulder bag – featuring the Prada triangular logo – costs £1,800.
“Clothing has been deeply ingrained in status for millennia because clothing is a social language,” says Emma McClendon, fashion historian and author of Power mode: the power of fashion. “It’s how we make our bodies socially readable.” Symbols change over time. “The way you show your strength and power may be different in 2022 than in 2016 or 2012,” she explains.
Status symbols at all times are defined by what the ruling elite looks like. In the digital age, these are the super-rich of Silicon Valley, characters who are more likely to be in hoodies and sneakers than in mainstream establishment garb. Mark Zuckerberg, hardly a style icon in the conventional sense, orchestrated this change. McClendon argues that her casual outfits were “a really conscious snub to Wall Street’s sense of success. Because at the end of the day, it’s about how each era or each individual tries to define success and power.
Sunak stuck to 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 by California brand Everlane, a choice meant to frame him as a poster boy for contemporary success and prosperity .
The discussion around status symbols also takes hold in 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 Burberry checks from head to toe, causing outrage – and the fashion house to reduce the number of checks it used for fear of alienating its upper-class clientele. Daniel Rodgers, a fashion writer who has written about the impact of Westbrook’s outfit, says the look would be less disruptive now. “It’s getting harder and harder to tell if someone is middle class, working class, or upper class because of the way the internet and social media have blurred all those markers.”
He does, however, see women in the public eye still causing outrage for overstepping their perceived limits. “Kim Kardashian is an example,” he says. “Before Kanye, when she was starting to dress in luxury houses like Givenchy, people were like, ‘Why does this page three girl have access to this?’ It really moves a lot of people [ideas of] to classify. It’s something so ingrained in us, so for someone to cross those boundaries, for a lot of people, it’s offensive, [because it’s] not respecting the kind of natural order in the world.
Signifiers are further complicated by the fact that status can now come from the “cool” and authenticity often tied to working-class culture. “There are pop stars or public figures who try to take working-class tropes and align themselves with something that feels more authentic,” says Rodgers.
Rachel Worth, author of the 2020 book fashion and class, says that this is not new. She evokes the French Revolution when “it became dangerous to wear high-end fabrics like silk. While looking laid back and working class has become politically correct.
Worth, whose forthcoming book focuses on sustainability, also argues that status can now come from being aware of your carbon footprint. “These things go in cycles,” she says. “In the 19th century, opportunity was far greater, even for workers. It’s like we’ve come back to that.
“It’s fashionable to be an informed consumer,” agrees Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, “to know where your clothes come from, to carefully organize your wardrobe and to show your appreciation for the finer things in life.”
In the public eye, it’s either – as with the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex – demonstrated by postponing outfits or – as with Carrie Johnson – by renting an outfit. Last year she wore a rental dress to marry the Prime Minister. In this context, Sunak and Truss’ conspicuous consumption of new things, whether fast fashion or high-end, could be seen as bad form, similar to Kylie Jenner’s boastful use of her private jet to traveling 17 minutes between two California airports triggered it. posing as a “climate criminal” in a viral tweet.
McClendon says what the two candidates are wearing communicates different status. If Sunak’s are “classic symbols of wealth – the tailored suit, the designer duds”, Truss’s earrings are “a kind of reverse status [symbol] … There is a sense of status, of power within a democratic system, representing the people.
Charlie Porter, author of What artists wear, believes Truss’ choice to wear fast fashion chimes with its cheap thrill policies. “[She] campaigns to cut taxes for short-term welfare,” he says. “The promise is of 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 could do them good in the long run Sunak’s luxury items, meanwhile, “can be used to confuse the rich, while still being objects of desire and aspiration.”
She adds: “I think we are in a really complicated time with wealth because there is both the prolonged pandemic, inflation, financial difficulties, but also sustainability. This makes vacuuming really complicated. Style status symbols are alive and well in 2022 but, as always, it’s far from simple.