Stately Signatures: Famous Clothes of Political Figures

President of South Africa Nelson Mandela
Image credit: Library of Congress / No known restrictions

It’s too early to call whether the mitten and Bernie Sanders will become as indelibly linked as Imelda Marcos and her shoes or Che and the beret. But if the last month’s worth of memes are anything to go by, Bernie and his mits might be en route to joining an illustrious list of political figures associated with a particular item of clothing.

Nelson Mandela and the Madiba Shirt

As with any person discussed here, to focus on an item of clothing next to Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary humanity and political achievements seems trivial, but the shirt that’s come to be identified by Mandela’s moniker offers a window into his remarkable character.

Madiba shirts are distinguished by their bold prints, light fabrics, and comfortable fit. Mandela was first given some as a gift in 1990 by President Suharto of Indonesia. The shirts were in batik, a textile print native to Indonesia, and Mandela liked them enough to adopt them as his signature garment.

But the choice went beyond simple preference. As Mandela’s tailor Yusuf Surtee, points out: ‘He wanted to identify with his people, and the majority never wore suits.’ The southeast Asian origins of the fabric also allowed him to connect with South Africa’s Cape Malay community, while the cut recalled the baggy, long-sleeved khaki shirts worn by black South Africans during the 1940s and ’50s.

His shirts allowed Mandela to transition seamlessly between formal and casual contexts while putting anyone he met at ease, regardless of what they wore. Ironically, given this chameleon quality, Madiba shirts also made him instantly recognizable, even at a distance — a great advantage for a man people were always desperate to catch a glimpse of.

Young Nelson Mandela
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

There were practical advantages too. As Sonwabile Ndamase, himself an accomplished Madiba shirt designer, suggests: ‘After years of breaking stones on Robben Island, the alkaline dust had taken its toll on his health’. The traditionally tailored suits that had marked Mandela as a man of style in his youth had become too heavy, so he opted for a lighter, more comfortable solution, and one that would demonstrate his characteristic thoughtfulness and flair.

Abraham Lincoln and the Top Hat

Abraham Lincoln portrait
Image credit: Mead Art Museum / Public domain

It’s unclear exactly when Abraham Lincoln started wearing his signature hat, but today the top hat remains as inseparable from our image of America’s sixteenth president as his chin strap beard. 

Top hats still imply a sense of status and authority — characteristics which might well be hoped for in a head of state — but on Honest Abe his hat’s famously crumpled appearance suggested these qualities were hard earned by a man of the people. 

Indeed, Lincoln’s hat was a garment whose use seemed to reveal much about him as a person. He was known to store papers inside the crowns of his hats, humbly removing them when speaking to his constituents. The National Museum of American History recalls an occasion on which Lincoln was approached by an elderly African American man who removed his hat as he bowed before the president. Lincoln’s response — the source of much outrage at the time — was to remove his own hat and bow silently in return. 

Abraham Lincoln wearing a top hat
Abraham Lincoln at Antietam, Maryland on October 3, 1862
Image credit: /Public domain

A stovepipe hat was perhaps a curious choice for Lincoln. At a towering 6’4’’ he hardly needed the extra seven or eight inches afforded anyone who dons a topper. But the hat, combined with his stature, gave him a lofty bearing that could be seen even from afar in a crowd. Sadly, it also marked him as a clear target. 

Abraham Lincoln and George Mcclellan
Abraham Lincoln, top hat at his side, meeting with General George B. McClellan
Image credit: Library of Congress / Public domain

In August of 1864, while Lincoln was on horseback about three miles northeast of the White House, a would-be assassin shot at him from near the roadside. Luckily, the bullet only knocked the hat off Lincoln’s head, leading to the popular notion that the hat saved his life. 

He also wore it on the night he died. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was dressed for the theatre. He had on a silk top hat, size 7-1/8, from the Washington hatmaker J. Y. Davis. In memory of the lives lost in the Civil War and of his son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever three years prior, he’d added a black silk mourning band. When Lincoln was shot, the hat was on the floor beside his chair.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill Portrait
Image credit: Yousuf Karsh / CC BY 2.0

The political figures mentioned so far each had a single sartorial signature; in the case of Winston Churchill, there’s practically a closet-full.

You name it: Three-piece suits, bow ties, homburg hats, jumpsuits, watch chains, and cigars — it’s hard to picture Churchill without also seeing these, or vice versa in some cases.

A man long celebrated for his witticisms, Churchill said of himself:

‘My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best’

Winston Churchill
Young Winstron Churchill
Churchill had a lifelong love of uniforms, even designing his own in the form of the ‘siren suit’
Image credit: Imperial War Museums / Public domain

His tastes were as specific as they were sumptuous. He claimed: ‘A gentleman buys his hats at Locks, his shoes at Lobbs, his shirts at Harvie and Hudson, his suits at Huntsman and his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield.’ Indeed, he patronised some of the capital’s finest makers of luxury goods: Fur-collared coats from Henry Poole or Bernau & Sons, canes and umbrellas from Thomas Brigg & Sons, and his favourite grey antelope slippers from Hook, Knowles & Co.

As far as cigars went, he preferred Cubans from Camacho or Romeo y Julieta. But when purse strings needed tightening, he settled for cheap American ones bought in secret by the thousands from the Equitable Cigar Stand on Broadway, NYC.

Churchill understood the power of costumes as a means of sending a message. His appearance suggested a man of import, means, and menace. It’s no accident that his discarded cigars would be chewed up and mangled, or that one of his most famous photographs sees him brandishing a Tommy gun while wearing his swanky best. The image he cultivated added a dose of Hollywood mobster to his legacy as a historic statesman.

Painting of Winston Churchill wearing a siren suit
Winston Churchill in one of his ‘siren suits’ painted by Peter McIntyre, 1942
Image credit: Archives New Zealand / CC BY 2.0

Among his many achievements, Churchill can also claim that of clothing designer. His distinctive one-piece, zip-up jumpsuit was of his own devising. He dubbed it the ‘siren suit’ and indeed it became a symbol of wartime Britain. Although taking inspiration from the boiler suits he’d seen bricklayers wear at his country home, Churchill’s siren suits were naturally tailored on Jermyn Street by Turnbull & Asser. Generously proportioned and featuring plenty of pockets, he got them in colours and fabrics for every occasion: smock materials for painting, pinstripes for meetings, and even colourful velvets should the occasion call for something a little dressier.

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