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Gaddafi, Fashion Icon: Power Politics & Cool Couture

Frederic Monneyron, fashion sociologist, explains how Gaddafi uses his extravagant style as political propaganda.

Mehdi Atmani

March 10, 2011: Draped in a brown velvet robe, Gaddafi threatens the West on national TV. This latest threat triggers anger among Western leaders, but also this remark by Shimon Peres: "Who needs this Gaddafi person? He should go work for Dior instead."

The Libyan leader is not going to replace Dior designer John Galliano, but his love of extravagant clothes is well-known. In 2007 at the Chateau de Versailles, Gaddafi wore a bomber jacket and a chapka military cap to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his classic suit. Two years later in Rome, he paraded in a well-adorned colonel's uniform next to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. For more than 40 years, he has used his clothes as a prop for his persona, but also to support his political agenda.

Le Temps spoke with Frederic Monneyron, a prominent French sociologist of fashion to better understand the meaning behind the Libyan leader's ever changing wardrobe.

What is Gaddafi's style? His clothes are a means of political propaganda. Gaddafi always refers to black Africa and the Arab world through the colors he wears, as well as the prints. The fits are often inspired by what African kings wore. He plays off Islamic green and contrasts. Since he came to power, he's always had a conquering and pompous posture. The French anthropologist Gilbert Durand distinguishes three categories of outfits: mystical, heroic and synthetic. Gaddafi is clearly in the heroic category, and it's never a good thing when one category clearly dominates your wardrobe. Among people who favor heroic outfits, you find many schizophrenic and paranoid personalities who constantly feel persecuted. Gaddafi's outfit is that of Prometheus. And it won't change.

But has wardrobe his evolved over the past 42 years? His outfits have changed alongside political events. There are three eras. His early years, when he wore military outfits next to Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Syria's Hafez al Assad. At the time, he wanted to show he was a secular and revolutionary officer as well as a young rebel. He had style and the type of class that people who slightly stray away from fashion norms have. In the 1980's, during the Lockerbie bombing, he showed his support for terrorism wearing a white suit and a black shirt, the Italian mob look. In 2009, during the G8 summit, as Gaddafi was trying to be recognized as a mainstream international leader by his counterparts, he turned to a more traditional look, wearing a suit, but a white one without a tie to keep his originality. Today, to put it simply, his outfits express his megalomania. Gaddafi no longer dresses like a political leader but struts about like a king above all kings.

You say his clothes show that he belongs to Africa. What do they say about his relationship with the West? The businessman/politician suit still imposes its code all over the world. From China to the US, the suit-and-tie still prevails in leaders' wardrobes. They have all turned to western style. Gaddafi, on the other hand, has always rejected traditional power. His outfits show he rejects traditional codes, so he doesn't follow fashion norms either. And that includes those from the Arab world. Besides some emirs, all heads of state from the Maghreb and the Middle East wear suits and ties. Even Saddam Hussein put aside his military clothes when he was on official visits! Former presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia had adopted this form of traditionalism. But not Gaddafi. He dictates his own rules as a leader just like he does with his style. Whether wearing a colonel uniform or draped in velvet, he has always differentiated himself with perfectionism, by his love of details and accessories. This interest in his appearance seems extreme considering the people he deals with.

Gaddafi isn't the only leader who cares about his style. Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy do too, don't they? Western clothes, especially the suit-and-tie, don't say much about the level of interest leaders have in their style. They can in some cases show a certain class, but that's it. Berlusconi, Putin, Obama and Sarkozy all have their style. But let's not forget that clothes, no matter how well they're cut, fit over a body. And that's one thing you cannot choose.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Open Democracy

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