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The international language of (political) facial hair

Facial hair: In the public’s eye
There is a scene in the film The Candidate (1972) when the protagonist, Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, is approached by Democratic Party operator Marvin Lucas to discuss politics. Looking him up and down, McKay says to Lucas: “I thought beards were taboo in your profession.”

What McKay was getting at here is that people, the voting public, just don’t trust politicians with facial hair; it makes them appear shifty, like they have something to hide, and as much as we like to think politics is about the triumph of ideas, in reality it is a lot shallower than that. It is all about style over substance. It is about not straying from the sound bite, not allowing oneself to be photographed in the wrong pose or place, and, perhaps most importantly, looking better than the other guy.

Hair’s breadth? 

The template for all this is the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates in the run-up to the election of 1960, which Kennedy won by a suspiciously narrow margin. Nixon, with eight years experience as vicepresident to Dwight Eisenhower, was a formidable presence in the debating arena, something that was confirmed when opinion polls revealed he was thought to have out-argued his younger, less experienced rival. Well, that was the radio audience; the TV crowd – judging exactly the same debates – felt that Kennedy had won out over his jowly, sweaty, shifty-eyed opponent.

History was made and the lessons were learned; the most important being, always wear makeup if you’re going to take part in a televised debate.

Since then, it has been vital that each US president carefully cultivate an image, some kind of leadership style, often as a reaction to an immediate predecessor; Carter was down-home, so Reagan was showbiz razzmatazz, Bush Sr. was insipid, so Clinton was virile and fun; Bush Jr. was dumb, so Obama is lofty, and so the cycle goes on.

Nowadays in the US, there tends to be a an emphasis more on personality than on style, categorized in the past as that one iconic piece of clothing that comes to represent the office-holder in a single item. Formerly, there has been some notable political iconography of the sort that is rarely seen these days such as Lincoln’s hat, Churchill’s cigar or Thatcher’s handbag. For today’s entire crop of style-over-substance generation of politicos, this generation has yet to produce that one standout leader brave enough to expose that idiosyncratic fashion accessory to the world’s media. Unless, of course, a major miracle happens and Elio di Rupo and his bow tie becomes Belgian premier – but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

FashIon tyrants

It is now probably a good time to bring up dictators. From Mussolini’s impeccably-ironed uniform, to the voodoochic of Duvalier and Mobutu’s leopard skin hat, crazy leaders often equate with crazy fashions. Being the supreme ruler of a nation means you can get away with a lot; no one was ever going to ridicule Idi Amin for wearing a kilt if they knew what was good for them.

Facial hair: In the public’s eye

Facial hair is another thing that tends to be favoured by leaders of one-party states. Hitler is an obvious example, but also to be considered are Franco’s clipped, pedantic upper lip, Castro’s unkempt vagrant look, Saddam Hussein’s manly ‘tache, which was later transformed into the greying beard of his trial appearance, and, of course, the magnificent comedy barman stylings of Joseph Stalin (not that, say, James Finlayson ever ordered the mass killing of his own people – unless there’s a director’s cut of Way Out West that we haven’t seen yet).

But, with a few exceptions, for example, Hugo Chavez and his quasi-military look, the notion of individual style seems to be missing from today’s political arena. Politicians are forever being warned to look smart, say the right thing, and be mediasavvy. Largely they succeed, but in the process all meld together into one big gloopy mess.

No one these days wants to look or say something that might make them a target for the pundits; the fear of ridicule is as powerful as it ever was. It was Coco Chanel who said that fashions change but style remains. In politics, this seems not to be the case – unless we define style as the fear of standing out.


Cillian Donnelly / Together Magazine / Expatica

Reprinted with permission of Together Magazine.