The Genteel
March 3, 2021


Mo Yan wears Western black tie attire whilst accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature. Source:

When Chinese writer Mo Yan traveled to Sweden in early December to accept the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, he didn't just attract criticism for his statements in support of "necessary" censorship laws in the mainland; his choice of clothing for the gala also raised eyebrows. Netizens in China disapproved of his Western black tie attire when he could have worn an outfit that resonated more with Chinese culture.

The emphasis on the sartorial choices of public figures is an indication that fashion indeed plays a role in cross-cultural diplomacy, perhaps now more than ever. "It wasn't an issue for [Mo Yan], but for people on the Internet," says Hazel Clark, Research Chair at the School of Art and Design, History and Theory at Parsons. Clark believes the public is more concerned with issues of dress now because they're exposed to so many more pictures of not only public figures, but of people in general.

Crown Prince Hirohito was dressed by 
Henry Poole & Co. on his first visit to the UK.

In addition to the Internet and social media, Clark suggests another reason for the controversy surrounding the writer's choice of attire: BRIC countries like China are still trying to establish themselves in the world. "Clothing is very important in nation-building," she says. Because China became divorced from its traditions as a result of political upheaval over the last century, the need to re-establish itself seems to be paramount; one way to do this is through reinforcing its cultural presence and ultimately, its identity. "We are so aware of one another, so visually oriented that clothing is how we kind of talk to each other," says Clark. "I don't think it's the only thing [in cultural identity], but it's a part of our customs and practices and part of us being profoundly visual communicators in the contemporary world."

The fact that we are living in an increasingly visual society isn't lost to the tailors on Savile Row. Built sometime in the early 1700s, Henry Poole & Co. is often credited for beginning the made-to-fit traditions of Savile Row in the mid-1800s, boasting customers like Charles Dickens and Napoleon III while avoiding being labeled archaic. The "golden mile of tailoring" in Central London's Mayfair district holds warrants for the Royal family and political heavyweights, many of whom aren't disclosed due to the street's policy of discretion, says Simon Cundey, director of Henry Poole & Co.

"Every time we meet a customer, we are analysing his walk of life and how he perceives himself and how he comes across to the general public […] We have a certain mayor of London that could use some help," laughs Cundey, who has been with the company for 18 years. He also emphasises the etiquette issue: the amount of effort one puts into a meeting with someone reinforces a certain cultural courtesy as well - the style of dress, especially across borders, reflects a gracious guest.

Being in the business for more than 200 years has given the artisans at Henry Poole quite a bit of insight into the conduct of sartorial formality. In 1921, Hirohito, the young emperor of Japan, was to make his first state visit to the UK and had no Western dress in which to meet the King of England. Henry Poole & Co. had a dispatch sent to the island of Gibraltar to meet with the emperor's boat before it arrived on the island. Telegram technology allowed for measurements to be sent back to London so tailors could have a suit waiting for him upon his arrival.

Every time we meet a customer, we are analysing his walk of life and how he perceives himself and how he comes across to the general public […] We have a certain mayor of London that could use some help.

"You tend to wear the dress of the nationality you are going to and not where you are coming from," says Cundey. He notes that when Queen Elizabeth leaves the island, she makes an effort to incorporate something in her outfit that relates back to the host country. "These kind of things can be put into the garment of a very discreet nature. She'll pick out some sort of flower or national animal and it will be incorporated into a dress or in the jacket."

The importance of echoing the cultural flavour of the country one is visiting is reinforced by Lynne Marks, an image consultant and founder of the London Image Institute based in Atlanta, Georgia. "You don't want to stand out like a sore thumb," she quips. "The protocol [for someone like Mo Yan to wear black tie] was correct because it was the event that dictated protocol."

A public figure's fashion choices are closely associated with his or her understanding of cultural, political and religious context. Cundey cites that in Gulf countries, men traditionally wear a dishdasha. "For the average Westerner, they may look the same, but there are different styles of trim which pinpoint different parts of the Middle East they come from." 

Consequently, a sort of fashion diplomacy has emerged as a facet of political diplomacy. The 2006 APEC conference held in Hanoi, Vietnam was a prime example of the convergence of cross-cultural awareness - and the awareness of cameras and media being present for the photo op. Photos of the event show world leaders like George Bush, Vladimir Putin and Stephen Harper in traditional Vietnamese ao dai silk tunics.

"They looked absolutely absurd and mad," argues Clark. "There's a difference between wearing national dress and when it actually turns into fancy dress." Although it's perhaps a show of cultural diplomacy and, of course, a chance to vamp for the cameras, Marks also agrees that had the leaders been left to their own devices, they probably would have opted for the "boring, old suit."

The tradition of the cultural garb exchange at APEC then begs the question of why Barack Obama chose to end a nearly 20-year old custom started by Bill Clinton for the 2011 APEC Conference in Honolulu. "I think he's very conscious of not looking like a fool," states Clark, who refers to this tradition as more of a performance. "I think Obama is very careful. He's the first African-American president. I think someone like Bush just didn't give a damn. He's part of the hierarchy of presidents."

Clark reinforces the point that there has to be a certain consciousness of who one is and how one wants to be perceived. Given that Obama has received an influx of skepticism (mostly from the right) about his birth origins and associations with certain political groups, there is no doubt he must tread a finer line than those in power before him.

World leaders at the 2006 APEC Conference in 
Hanoi wearing traditional Vietnamese garb.

Even vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan received much flack for his decision to pose for Time magazine while pumping iron in October 2012; critics believed that it resulted in the public taking him less seriously. "I think there is a question as to the extent to which politicians have to keep their distance [from the public] and one way is through dress code," says Clark. She likens formal businesswear in politics to a sort of uniform for the job. Although it may not be something he or she may not choose to wear in a social setting, public figures are always considered in the spotlight; if someone is not seen wearing it, it takes them out of the job and out of context.

But of course, the idea of the Western suit being an international standard in diplomatic and business dealings is precisely that - Western. In Africa, many men wear the agbada and women the buba for formal events, while the sari is accepted as business dress in India. However, at the United Nations, an organisation that seeks to unite cultures, the common denominator in prescribed dress is, in fact, the Western suit. To a large extent, Western norms have been adopted as universal norms and standards. Traversing these long-held borders may not be as simple as posing for a photo in the dress of another culture. 



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