The Chinese mind tends to uniformity, which is partly why Chinese bodies are so often clad in uniforms.
Back in the old days the uniforms were either military khaki, patterned after the Soviet model, or paramilitary blue of Identikit design. The impression was eerie: it was as if the whole nation was cut to the same stencil.
These days those Chinese one encounters outside China have discovered the joy of Dior and Ferragamo, along with other Western delights, such as public drunkenness. So much more upsetting it was to see President Xi Jinping pose with President Obama this morning.
Both men were wearing identical dark suits, accessorised with white open-collared shirts and plastic smiles. My first thought was that perhaps the Chinese commie ‘prevert’, to use the preferred American locution, had imposed his taste for sartorial uniformity on the running dog of American imperialism.
That misconception was, however, dispelled by the next bit of Sky News footage starring Obama as chairman of a cabinet meeting later the same day. Every man at the table was wearing exactly the same clothes as the participants of the US-China summit: dark suits with open-collared white shirts.
Now call me an old fogie or something worse, but as a matter of general principle I don’t think suits should be worn without a tie. A blazer, yes; a tweed jacket, possibly; a suit, no.
However, as a matter of particular principle, a tall, reedy Italian under 30 can look quite dashing in a dark suit with an open-collared shirt. An Englishman or an American who could pass for an Italian, and who’s also young, tall and reedy, may sometimes pull it off without looking stupid, but seldom.
Middle-aged men dressed that way look frankly pathetic, especially if they aren’t Italian, and the chaps around Obama’s table probably employ image consultants who told them this very thing. Like they tell them never to wear a white shirt on camera (glare), never to appear in a hat (wimpish) and always to eschew umbrellas (ditto) unless it’s a real downpour, in which case they shouldn’t be outdoors anyway.
Yet in this instance the ministers ignored their consultants’ advice. They chose to look ridiculous – and what’s worse, identically ridiculous. It’s as if the Chinese affection for uniforms had rubbed off on Obama and from him on his subordinates.
Why, I wondered. And then I remembered: yesterday was Friday. On that day all American office workers pledge allegiance to the great, if rather recent, American institution: the Dress-Down Day.
Every Friday chaps who throughout the week have to suffer the imposition of the traditional dress code, are told to come to work in jeans, trainers and checked shirts. In the southern reaches of the US of A, trainers may be replaced with cowboy boots and Western shirts may make an appearance. In either case, all employees must wear the prescribed uniform on pain of mockery, ostracism and eventual sacking.
Even men who grow up wearing suits and feel awkward in denim must toe the line – or else. Similarly, even men who’ve received an expensive education and therefore can express themselves with proper grammar and extensive vocabulary are expected to use solecisms and malapropisms, even – especially! – if they know those for what they are.
By the same token even politicians educated at Andover and the Ivy League are expected to converse in folksy asides and the odd swear word, along with locutions like ‘there’s lotsa folks out there who’s hurtin’ right now.’ Old Dubya spoke that way naturally, or rather did a darn good job pretending he did.
He desperately needed the ‘folks’ to forget that his senator grandfather was named Prescott, rather than say Bubba or Billy Bob, that his president father couldn’t for the life of him do the populist bit, that they like him went to Yale – and all three belonged to the quasi-Masonic Scull and Bones society.
A politico is just about allowed to be posh in America, but only if the ‘folks’ see that he’s tryin’ to do his goddamnest to be just like’em. They know he’s dissembling, and he knows they know, but the game has to be played by certain rules, with every ritual observed.
This is the US equivalent of Tony studiously dropping his aitches when speaking to some audiences and reclaiming them when addressing others. Or Dave calling himself Dave, using words like ‘chillaxing’ and wearing casual clothes whenever there’s a TV crew in the vicinity. Dave of course also underscores his modern, populist, with-it credentials by wearing the odd black suit with no tie, and he’s not even Italian.
Being half-black, Obama is allowed more leeway than, say, Dubya was, and he don’t even have to sound like no Texan roustabout, Californian grape-picker or Brooklyn trader. He can actually wear his Ivy League education on his sleeve – provided that the sleeve doesn’t look like it comes from anywhere in Europe, especially, God forbid, Savile Row.
But there are limits. Obama may do posh, but it has to be ‘merican posh. That means no long words within the folks’ earshot, no disdain for the folks’ taste in music (Country and Western is OK, jazz just about OK, classical ain’t – unless it’s Aaron Copland or John Philip Sousa) and hotdammit no tie on a Friday. OK, no jeans if it happens to be a state occasion, but definitely no tie.
What’s distressing is that we’re picking up American things here, like baseball caps, verbs made out of nouns, Coke and KFC – and the Dress-Down Day. Thus Dave, who spent his student days drinking Bollie with or without Stollie, now has to feign affection for the Ye Olde English pint – especially when a lens can be espied anywhere within a mile.
Somehow, though, we balk at such American habits as enterprise, hard work and short holidays. But hey, a chap has to draw the line somewhere, what?