If 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.
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.