Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Public’s Peacocks, Part Two

Penned upon the 23rd of July, 2010

Today’s Public Peacock is the Presidential Model – a fop who rose so high, his rank had to rush to keep up with him. He changed the face of American politics like no head of state since Lincoln, and he did it his way, from his pince-nez to his riding-boots. He was a man of legendary tenacity, physical resolve and derring-do, and as such, his name is now synonymous with adorable, huggable children’s toys. I speak of Theodore Roosevelt, statesman, scholar and adventurer.

Though he became the twenty-sixth President of the United States largely by accident, Roosevelt’s importance in the history of the American left can hardly be overstated. Early twentieth-century progressivism was a beast of many eccentricities, idiosyncrasies and abortive experiments, of course, but the lasting achievements of his political career include the foundation of the national parks system, the regulation of production and distribution of food and medicine, the breaking of business monopolies, protection for vulnerable workers, and the strongest showing of any third party in American political history.

Roosevelt’s brand of progressivism was a system of state paternalism, achieved through national power and personal bluster – a philosophy quite unalike Wilde’s idealistic libertarianism. He was also known for his feats of physical might – leading cavalry charges without even the luxury of a horse to ride; mapping uncharted stretches of the tributaries of the Amazon; experiencing an assassination attempt without letting it interrupt his daily public duties – and it should be noted that he survived that event by the ingenious method of blocking the gunman’s bullets with his body. He was, in short, a man’s man’s man; the sort of man that man’s men aspire to be.

He was also a raging fop. He was already known as an exquisite dude on his entry into the New York State Assembly in his early twenties; a tight-trousered fashion plate, all stripes and hair oil. His style got more butch as his political ambition grew, but he always retained a taste for the dramatic, a certain strength of detail, and, of course, his signature pince-nez. Whatever his station, TR could find something smart to wear. His spell as a Dakota rancher, he illustrated with an elaborate country suit, bedecked top to toe with tassels and furs. When the Spanish-American War broke out and he felt it was his patriotic duty to be on the front lines, his cobbled-together uniform, with slouch hat and enormous cavalry gloves, became a personal and national icon.

His style grew more sombre and his trousers more voluminous as he advanced in age, but the precise cut of his cloth is immaterial so long as that cut was decidedly his. His life, like his wardrobe, was styled exactly to suit him, and such was his personal influence that his followers in office are still wearing his political hand-me-downs. He expanded the power of the presidency, giving his successors in the executive greater scope to remake the world in their own image. Not always for the better, natch – the one way to ensure moral objections to everything one does is to go into politics.

In short, even if one questions the legitimacy of the power he wielded, he did a lot of good with it, with great style and panache of his own making. He was a kind of pre-war Batman, in short – and given that he was actually Police Commissioner at one point, the facetious comparison looks more likely the more I examine it. In any case, he is one we can look at and say, “Yes, this fop, this grandiose clotheshorse, changed the world.”

A postscript of sorts: you may wonder whether Roosevelt at any time combined his interests and addressed the question of dress reform. I have read some of his letters and diaries, and while they contain some highly endearing descriptions of kittens and ponies, I do not recall any particular discussion of dress – I would be happy to have my attention drawn to any, of course.

For some national leaders who did opine upon clothing, I might point to the leaders of the Indian Independence Movement. Many had their own distinct style; the socialist Prime Minister Nehru gave his name to the style of coat he favoured. Muhammad Ali Jinnah wore a particular style of loose-fitting, high-waisted three-piece suit, often with a large, bold necktie. Mohandas Gandhi himself is iconic for his traditional wraps, though he wore very English three-piece suits during his early days in law. Their styles come together in the movement’s anti-colonial action including a call for Indians to reject mandatory importation and to produce their own clothes; to take up looms and weave, and wear what Indians had woven, and so help restore their livelihood. The act of producing cloth was thus accredited both practical and spiritual importance – a lesson any good fop would do well to remember as they dress.


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