Last of the Dapper Politicos

willie-lede.jpgIf politics make strange bedfellows, the strangest must be the dandy and the politician.

Yes, there is a long tradition of political dandyism from Alcibiades to William Pitt, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Samuel Hoare and Anthony Eden in Britain, and the young Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Walker, and former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the United States.

But we wonder if this tradition can withstand scrutiny. Disraeli became a successful politician only after he put his green velvet trousers, canary-colored waistcoat and lace shirts in mothballs. Walker, on the other hand, remained a dandy, but his casual approach to governing eventually forced him out of office.

On a more profound level, how can one square the politician’s naked ambition for power and the need, in modern democracies, to cater to the masses with the dandy’s nonchalant superiority?

One man, though, who has been a successful politician for decades and whose style we’ve always admired is San Francisco’s Willie Brown.

Thirteen years after he resigned as Speaker of the California State Assembly — an office he held for an unprecedented 15 years — and more than four years after his tenure as San Francisco’s mayor ended, Willie Brown remains one of the most powerful men in California politics. He is also one of the world’s best dressed men.

A Texas native, Brown came west, arrived in San Francisco in 1951, age 17. He was met at the station by a dapper uncle, he relates in his new memoir, “Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times,” who took one look at the country-dressed youngster and immediately took him shopping. Brown’s been a clothes-wearing man ever since.

Brown’s politics, like those of his predecessors is built on “juice” — that most dandyish form of soft power that works entirely through personality, influence and connections and operates at the highest levels of society. And Brown is nothing if not a social butterfly. Though now in his 70s, rare is the evening when he doesn’t have two or three high-toned engagements lined up, and he still spends his Friday afternoons at the window table at Le Central, talking, drinking and playing dice with socialites like Harry de Wildt and his long-time haberdasher, Wilkes Bashford.

Partly through his old friend, the late Herb Caen — who dubbed him “Da Mayor” and called him “Hizzoner” — and partly through his own charisma, Brown developed a relationship with the press that was the envy of his political colleagues and the scourge of his rivals.

“The only thing worse than being misquoted,” he once said, channeling Oscar Wilde, “is not being quoted at all.”

Though investigated by the FBI, no charges have ever been brought against him. Today Brown makes no bones about chalking that up, in part, to never taking notes at any meeting and instead relying on a prodigious and well-trained memory to remember just who owes what to whom. During one recent investigation, Brown was asked by a federal prosecutor if he recollected any of his conversations with the embattled target. “No,” he answered, “but I could probably tell you what he was wearing.”

Among his crowning achievements is the renovation of the Ferry Building on San Francisco’s waterfront, an arcade worthy of any  flâneur. Here in a quiet office on the second floor, above the bustling crowds that visit the building’s artisan food stalls each day, Brown holds court at The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics & Public Service. The Institute’s mission is to train students for careers in municipal government, though Brown appears to spend his days functioning much as he always has, as king-maker, his hands always working the dials of power, but now behind the scenes.

I recently dropped in on Brown at his Ferry Building office to ask him about the power of style. Though he visibly winced when he heard the phrase “political dandies,” Brown nevertheless had no hesitancy to share his expertise about matters sartorial.

MM: Tell us about the relationship between style and power.willie-statesman.JPG

WB: You have what is essentially a way of expressing who you really are by what you wear. And as you express who you are by what you wear, it also shows evidence of what your status happens to be from a power standpoint.

I frankly have been amazed at how quickly a very poor dresser, a governor named George W. Bush, became an appropriate dresser with a clear indication of power in his choice of wardrobe. I think it must be Oxxford out of Chicago that is doing his clothing.

Somebody hipped Bill Clinton to the fact that if you have a not terribly attractive physique, she figured out how to make women’s figures who are not great, she designed clothing that was consistent with their figures but in a flattering way. Donna Karan did that with Bill Clinton and in the process got the right colors, the right ties, the right shirts. When they were worn the way he was instructed to wear them, it evidenced power.

George Bush clearly has taken similar advice. The only time he screws up — sartorially speaking, anyway — is when he tries to go casual. When he tries to go casual he reduces himself to being less presentable from a power standpoint. When he wears the medium blue suits with the sky blue shirt and the yellowish or gold tie he’s in perfect form to evidence what he is and what he is about.

MM: That’s very interesting, because when I look at Bush when he’s wearing a suit I think, “unremarkable.” When I look at you in a suit I see something different entirely.

WB: Well, I think you have an attitude already about Bush. I don’t think you’re giving him a fair hearing in terms of looking just at what he’s wearing. I have the same attitude about the man as you. I look at him with a critical eye. If his tie is not tied exactly right, I’m a harsh critic. I recall once at Katrina when he tried to be casual and he mis-buttoned his shirt. It was funny as hell. But it was really embarrassing, and it really depreciated him.

I think it’s also how you already perceive who he is and what he is about, and then he opens his mouth and, well, it diminishes what he’s wearing by 100 percent.

MM: So there’s a relationship between demeanor and power just as there is between style and power?

WB: Yes, of course.

MM: Historically there have been a number of what can be described as “political dandies,” such as Benjamin Disraeli. Who in the politics of the past do you take as a style icon?

WB: I think if you go back and check out Adam Clayton Powell, how he dressed, you’ll find that he had a preference for Bengal-stripped shirts with solid ties. He looked like he was right out of Naples, which is probably the region that most often exhibited those qualities. And he looked good at all times.

MM: You’re a Wilkes Bashford man. Is your work custom?

WB: No, my work is mostly not custom, believe it or not. I am an instant gratifier, so I go for rack-wear, unless I am looking for something really unusual or special. For example, this blazer I’m wearing, I really love the color so I’m having a spring blazer done, which means I’m going to a very light cashmere fabric that Bashford would never put into his store because it costs too much. He’s having that made for me but it is not being made by any tailor measuring me. It’s being made in the 42 regular that then will be appropriately fitted.

I don’t do that too often. I will do it for special pieces. For example, I decided that for the Academy Awards some 10 years ago I wanted to wear a Rhett Butler outfit. So we, Wilkes and I, combined our views and I flew to Italy, to the Brioni factory, and they got involved and at the Academy Awards I was resplendent in what Clark Gable would have died for had he been re-shooting “Gone with the Wind.”

But I usually go in the store and buy off the rack. I would prefer to wear it out of the store and to leave at the store what I wore in.

MM: Who in politics today would say is a style icon?

WB: No one, sadly.

MM: What about you?

WB: Well, there’s always me.

Digg TwitterFacebook StumbleUpon

17 Responses to “Last of the Dapper Politicos”

  1. Wellesy Says:

    Wow. Brilliant. Bravo, Michael!
    I was shocked when I read about his buying most everything off the rack, but his statement “I would prefer to wear it out of the store and to leave at the store what I wore in” just bowled me over. That’s brash. That’s stylish. That’s dandy. He certainly wears a rack article better than most people wear bespoke.

  2. Jeff Liss Says:

    Nice. I’m not sure if Willie is the Devil Dandy for all the string pulling over the years or not, but he certainly has an effect on people.

    I was leaving work and walking up Second Street from Mission to Market a couple years ago and saw him turn to walk in front of me. Nice clothes or not, watching his back wasn’t all that interesting, so I watched the faces of people who passed him coming the other way. (Admittedly, I have done this once or twice walking behind extraordinarily attractive women, but only when what they were wearing draped shapelessly from the rear view.)

    There was such a funny mix of emotions on their faces as they recognized him: starstruck affection, frustrated bemusement, and little moments of envy, even anger.

  3. Michael Says:

    Good to hear from you, Jeff! Cheers!

  4. santy567 Says:

    are they serious about this thread? where is the dandy? next thing Obama will be considered a dandy.
    a nice face doesn’t hurt either.

  5. scott Says:

    Great piece that left me wanting more. He’s an interesting character and I’m glad the site deemed him worthy of coverage.

  6. wellesy Says:

    Last of the Dapper Politicos? With his eye definitely into sizing up his contemporaries, including Bush, I’d like to know his opinions of others. Surely, there are no dandies on the hill but it would make for a great blog writing about politics and sartorial matters. I agree that Obama is pretty unremarkable in the matter. Not much more interesting than Bush actually. People will unfairly give him more points for being younger and better looking, but he’s no deliberate trendsetter like JFK. Interesting notes, but I wonder what Willie makes of Joe Biden, again no dandy, but one with a cocksure approach to dress with his preference suspenders, dazzling cufflinks and expensive watches. He’s certainly sure of himself to the degree that he doesn’t mind being called elitist by adversaries grasping at straws. His words during the debates kept saying, “Boy from Scranton” but his style and manner appended “and never going back.” Dapper Politico would make for an excellent blog on its own terms.

  7. Michael Says:

    Santy567 asks: “are they serious about this thread? where is the dandy? next thing Obama will be considered a dandy. a nice face doesn’t hurt either.”

    Yes, we are serious (well, as serious as we are likely to get, anyway). What did you expect Hizzoner to be wearing? A topper, spats and a lace jabot? Visible sock garters? Candy striped knee breeches and a monocle? What’s your idea of a contemporary dandy?

  8. Michael Says:

    Scott notes: “Great piece that left me wanting more.”

    Thanks. This interview was actually done last year. You can read the other half at:


  9. scott Says:

    I guess “ask and ye shall receive”. Thanks for more great material.
    I recall posting that image of him in the cream slacks and light green coat on the forum a while back.

  10. Kouros Says:

    Michael, thanks for responding to santy567.
    This is an essay/article that can and should be published in various magazine about style.
    Brilliant article! As for santy567 without a doubt WB is a dandy of the world of today. Not yesteday or last year but today!! He’s beyond race!!


  11. santy567 Says:

    well, i didn’t know about the modern dandy, i ought go downtown and watch the dandies go to work. I’m simply judging the two pictures above, it hard to find dandies at that age and in that condition. second even tough he is wearing a nice hat. what makes it, is how you wear it. just look at the handkerchief how nicely arranged it is. just as a salesman would wear it. i just feel monstrous judging an old man. anyway a dandy as i remember it was suppose to be a philosopher of life, which reflects on his clothing and way of life. now because you have a great job and wear expensive clothes does not make you a dandy.

  12. Kouros Says:

    Good evening,
    Santy567,with all due respect, he is all of what you’ve stated, regardless that he might be “d’un certain age” and in the picture displayed, he might not be at his best, but if you do take time to search and read about him and possibly google him for more pictures, you will first see it and intellectually come to the same conclusion as myself and Michael. Santy567, for some individuals, it’s just obvious that they are dandies and personally I’m sure he’s aware of it as well. From an intellectual, historical and aesthetic perspective.
    WB is in that league of the happy few.


  13. santy567 Says:

    yeah i took the time. and i found some photos, one in a Aids rally, another with Schwarzenegger whom was wearing a beautiful blue suit, but he isn’t much of a dandy either. But how can i possibly judge an old man. my grandfather wears hats and suits, but that does not make him a dandy
    i may be accustomed to the young and snobbish artist, and there are very few around, if any. but i believe if a real dandy would come around, the person in question would look to be wearing some unattractive suits and ties.
    i hope isn’t going commercial with new political connections.
    remember eternal superiority of the dandy, and beauty above everything. how original.

  14. Mr Thompson Says:

    All this talk of “dandies of a certain age”…Where’s Willard when ya need him?

  15. Oliver Says:

    He’s wearing a windowpane pattern on the first jacket, very good, but he follows the predictably bland politician style in the choice of white shirt and solid tie. Ah, but it’s a silver-grey tie rather than the politician’s usual horrid choice of a solid red. Very well, that’s almost enough to make me forgive him for the lifeless knot. Oh, see this- some shirt cuff is visible! Astonishing, I’m all in favour of giving him a medal for that.

    However, even if he outdresses the average burgermeister, it should be accepted as an iron-bound rule that no specimen of the genus, _dandy_, can be an elected official. Surely Jimmy Walker was the exception that proves the rule? This goes beyond the question of dress. Such a man cannot afford to have the dandy’s frivolity in respect of worldly matters; they can never exude an air of the louche and the vaguely disreputable while remaining elegant; they know nothing of the ironic self-absorbtion of one who lives for his own amusement and justifies his existence with no useful occupation. Most of the male population, including all salarymen and CEOs, are excluded for the same reasons. Such men exist to be scandalised and outwitted by the dandy.

    I’m willing to listen to idle talk about jazz musicians dressing like IBM executives, but not IBM executives (or their ilk) labelled as dandies.’s quest to redefine dandyism so as to include the Rex Motrams of the world is doomed to failure.

  16. Michael Says:

    Everyone’s an expert all of a sudden.

    *Such a man cannot afford to have the dandy’s frivolity in respect of worldly matters; they can never exude an air of the louche and the vaguely disreputable while remaining elegant; they know nothing of the ironic self-absorbtion [sic] of one who lives for his own amusement and justifies his existence with no useful occupation.*

    Clearly, Oliver here doesn’t know The Honorable Willie Brown, Jr. from a can of paint. Hizzoner’s trick has been to be able to live an ultimately louche life while keeping it all together, personally and politically. The man’s 75th birthday was just celebrated at Paris City Hall — an event which came about because Brown beat Paris Mayor Bertand Delanoe in a dice game some years ago during a long lunch at Le Central here in San Francisco. That’s about as dandy as it gets, my friend.

  17. Willi gronow | Byjudith Says:

    […] » Blog Archive » Last of the Dapper Politicos […]

Leave a Reply