February 06, 2007
Style is the most abused word in the English language. It is usually attributed to fashionable people by those not in the know. Style, however, is an elusive quality, and few fashionable people and almost no celebrities possess it outright. No one is capable of buying it, although thousands try. The dictionary defines ‘style’ as a noticeably superior quality. It is of an abstract nature and one either has it or one does not. As a child, I used to admire dictators, their brilliant uniforms, their swagger and their conviction. Although I hate to admit it, I still like dictators and for a very good reason: their lack of hypocrisy. They do not resort to taking the advice of pollsters and image-makers in order to find out who they ought to be. They don’t give a fig for what the great unwashed think. Imagine caring what Jade Goody’s wishes are. After all, style has a lot to do with lack of pretence.
It might seem lightweight at first glance, but sartorial elegance and dictatorial allure go hand-in-hand. Stalin was too short, too pockmarked and looked too much like the wily peasant he was to be able to hide behind the military uniforms he affected. Physical presence is important. Hence Hitler’s moustache made him look too ridiculous, and his Nazi uniforms were too loose to pass muster. He should have copied his Wehrmacht marshals where dress sense was concerned. Ditto poor old Benito. Italians have always had style, but somehow the fascists failed the ultimate test. Too much black, I suppose, although Ciano was a sartorial triumph until the end.
No, one of the most elegant dictators was Ion Antonescu, the Romanian general who was born an aristocrat, seized power in 1940 and was executed in 1946 by the winners, as is the usual case. They say that being Romanian is a profession, not a nationality, and Antonescu looked the Prisoner of Zenda part to the hilt. His Iron Guard wore hip-high boots and shining helmets and let down their Wehrmacht allies rather badly in Stalingrad, but still, like Antonescu, they had style. My consultant in sartorial as well as dictatorial matters is the very stylish Nicky Haslam, who also tells me that Antonescu died very stylishly. He had a couple of Romanian hookers and champagne before facing the firing squad.
Admiral Horthy was another Mittel-Europa dictator who dressed very elegantly. He tried to restore the Habsburgs after overthrowing the commie Béla Kun, failed, allied himself with the Axis, defied Hitler in 1944 and died in his bed in stylish Estoril in 1957. Horthy was style personified. Ironically, Enver Hoxha, an Albanian peasant, was another good dresser who looked the part of a dictator.
Real dress sense, however, is to be found among South American dictators, people like Juan Peron and Leopoldo Galtieri. Peron was tall and wore those waisted suits that Argie gigolos are famous for. He may have ruined the richest country in South America in his time, but he sure knew how to look like a dictator. As did Galtieri. Leopoldo was a distinguished-looking man with his white hair and ram-rod posture. Losing to an Englishwoman could not have done a lot for his ego.
Alas, my two favourite dictators, Pinochet of Chile and Stroessner of Paraguay, cannot be included in the list of best-dressed. Uncle Augusto was too short and tubby, as was Stroessner, and also Salazar and Franco, for that matter. Salazar looked like the Portuguese economics professor that he was, and Franco like a uniformed night watchman. Which brings me to my favourite, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, father-in-law of my great buddy Porfirio Rubirosa, and the only man who renamed his country after himself. (Ciudad Trujillo was what the Dominican Republic was known as until his demise.) Rafael wore beautiful naval uniforms and white linen suits with corespondent shoes. He may have lacked stature and was a bit on the tubby side, but he died like a real macho. After a siesta and a quickie with 22-year-old Pepita, he was ambushed while riding in his convertible on his way back to the capital. But the old boy managed to get off a couple of shots, wounding one of his assassins while being riddled with sub-machine gunfire. Now that’s how real dictators should go down. Not shaking in their boots à la Ceausescu.
Another good dresser was Fulgencio Battista, the Cuban strongman overthrown by Castro in 1959. I was at school with his son Ruben, who told me the pains Fulgencio took with his suits and uniforms. Too bad he was replaced by Fidel, who looks like a garbage collector in his fatigues. Nasser, too, was an elegant dresser, as was Porfirio Diaz of Mexico and Velasco of Peru. The best-dressed of all, of course, was FDR, almost a dictator, but definitely a man of great sartorial taste. For any of you contemplating a coup, take a crash course at Anderson & Sheppard this summer.
Spectator, January 27, 2007