Beyond Brexit: How Jeremy Corbyn’s Suits Got Dapper

David Cameron would be remembered for the legacy of a needless Brexit referendum whose confusion continues to burden the UK. Still, an event whose value is being witnessed in the smarter appearances of Jeremy Corbyn ought to be properly situated. While answering questions during PMQs on 24th February, 2016, Cameron lost his patience with the Opposition and attacked Corbyn. The preceding five years had been characterised by Cameron’s dominance of PMQs where his opposite was Ed Miliband. Through his first Parliament as PM, Cameron gained renown as an unapologetic, no-holds barred debater against whom Miliband stood no chance. As Opposition Leader previously, Cameron had shown the Labour party the tough character he was through his continued aggressiveness towards PM Gordon Brown. Nonetheless, Miliband was unable to measure up to the debating prowess of Cameron when he assumed the role of Opposition Leader in 2010. The 24th February, 2016 PMQs centred on the appropriate working schedule for junior doctors in the NHS. The remuneration for junior doctors who worked at nights and weekends was a subject of contention between Corbyn and Cameron. While Corbyn emphasized the non-agreement between the junior doctors and the Health Secretary, Cameron remained insistent that the government had no intention of saving money from the 7-day NHS. Cameron added that under his watch, the NHS had introduced 10,000 more nurses and 10,000 more doctors whose services would be catered for by an extra £10bn his government was putting into the NHS for its effectiveness.

Matters got ugly when Corbyn cited some statistics from Cameron’s local NHS Trust in Oxford which had overspent on staffing cost by £11m so far in 2016 and yet managed to spend £30m on agency staff. In stating his question, Corbyn concluded: “Will the Chair of the Oxford anti-austerity campaign be writing another letter to himself asking on behalf of his constituents, for the Health Secretary to intervene and support his local NHS?” In responding, Cameron’s rhetoric on being proud of his local NHS Trust was interrupted by a voice from the opposition back benches. At the time, the opposing stance of Cameron’s mother towards Cameron’s preferred child policy was topical. Basking in the mother-PM disagreement, the interrupting voice uttered to Cameron: “ask your mother!” At this point, Cameron’s wish to evade Corbyn’s uncomfortable question was granted. He responded: “I’d ask my mother? Oh I think I know what my mother would say. I think she’d look across the dispatch box and she’d say ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem!’” Cameron was riled by the mockery Corbyn had made of him deploying the illustration of the PM’s local NHS Trust. In trying to manage his position, he heard yet another annoying remark concerning his mother, who had made the news only recently for opposing him. He thus shed off the management rhetoric he was preparing and unleashed what was a long-held reservation on Corbyn: a disapproval of his fashion sense. For all that Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor, suffered from Cameron at PMQs; never did Cameron take a shot at Miliband over his suits, but under six months, Corbyn had incurred Cameron’s wrath through an unlikely source.

Jeremy Corbyn is the unlikely sexagenarian who emerged as Labour leader at a time of severe crisis for the party. Born in 1949, his dress sense is to be framed within the backdrop that prior to the mid-1980s, while women and youngsters were well provided for by the fashion industries, the range of fashions produced for men over 25 was narrow. Men who displayed an interest in clothing and visual appearance were seen as effeminate. That is as far as the alibi goes. For while Corbyn is much older than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, both are presently also sexagenarians. Yet, Blair and Brown wore trendy suits while they led the Labour party, two decades ago and a decade ago respectively. Corbyn cannot claim to be a relic of an era in which he had grown up. In order to be an effective Opposition Leader, Corbyn must have a grip of the social media and myriad technological advancements. Indeed, his presentations during PMQs suggest that he is on top of the situation as far as research goes. Why then was Corbyn’s dress sense in a pre-1980s state as to warrant such a dressing down from Cameron? Certainly, Corbyn wasn’t of the rigid position that since woman is indivisible from fashion, man isn’t? After all, a Google search throws up thousands of pages devoted to fashion. What identity of himself did Corbyn propose to communicate through a ‘Google-unfriendly’ dress sense that provided Cameron with ready ammunition?

Through his remark, Cameron isolated Corbyn’s fashion sense in order to evade the question of excessive spending at the Oxford NHS Trust, thus invited the country to partake in a rational qualitative critique of Corbyn’s wardrobe. In the book Fashion as Communication, Malcolm Barnard argues that since there are alternative interpretations of garments between the designers and the wearers, meaning cannot be a product of the designer’s intentions. Comfortable fashion is that which is socially acceptable, yet, it is inappropriate to assume essentialist positions over fashion. Corbyn’s fashion style may be anathema to Cameron and vice versa. Fashion identities are increasingly relational, interdependent, and constantly fluctuating between self-perception and external recognition. Still, it is difficult to sustain this thought considering Corbyn’s post-PMQs reaction.

Having kept it dignified at PMQs by stating his mother’s commitment to a free NHS towards which Cameron should work, Corbyn fell for the intoxicating lure of the social media soon afterwards. He took to Twitter less than an hour after the dispatch box exchanges and tweeted a quote of Albert Einstein’s thus: “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes & shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas & shoddy philosophies.” He continued his response, unprovoked, a day after in the presence of pressmen while getting set for an interview. Of Cameron, Corbyn said: “He is actually jealous of the jacket. You know what he is really jealous of? That I can go shopping in the great shopping centre of the world, Holloway Road, N7, and he is stuck with Bond Street.”

Corbyn’s persistence on the subject a day after showed his continued engagement in the salvo from Cameron, conferring it with leverage. From the somewhat excessive latter-day humour with which Corbyn chose to proceed, it becomes safe to conclude that Cameron’s remark made a lasting impression and fetched him some of Corbyn’s respect. Several issues outside of fashion had triggered disagreements between both men at PMQs prior to 24th February, 2016, yet, none has had more sustenance in the oral/language itinerary of Corbyn than Cameron’s maternal invocation to get him spruced out. Following the directive to put on a proper suit and do up his tie, Corbyn appeared to have elevated his perception and become fonder of Cameron by being more aware of the latter’s preferred ‘Bond Street’ fashion house. In fact, Corbyn has since taken to trendier jackets/suits and has become Cameron-compliant as far as they go in his exchanges with Cameron’s successor, PM Theresa May.

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Garhe Osiebe


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