The singular sartorial style of David Cameron’s former adviser smacks not of eccentricity, but arrogance
Ridiculously, the search engine for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies retrieves nothing about local dress codes. All that can be assumed from related images is that scholars within this prestigious research centre, part of Stanford University in California, favour dark suits and ties for formal occasions, open-necked pale blue shirts for seminars, accessorised with a pair of trousers and, one gathers, shoes. Steve Hilton, whose arrival at the institute is expected any time, has been celebrated, throughout his residency in Downing Street for coming to the office in a T-shirt, shorts and plimsolls, the latter removed on arrival.
There is a hint of the man’s daring, perhaps, in the FSI’s announcement of its new asset, in which he is introduced to unsuspecting suits as “Cameron’s top adviser”. His academic function is to “focus on innovation in government, public services and communities around the world”. But omitted from this encomium is what must surely pass for Hilton’s greatest contribution yet to modern international relations: wearing socks to meet President Obama.
In The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie claimed dress as a means of communication, albeit one which can be a bit one-sided. “Even if we are never introduced,” she explains, “clothes tell about class status, age, family origin, personal opinion, taste, current mood or even give information about erotic interest and sexual status.”
So: Steve Hilton. What have his clothes been telling us or, more specifically, the prime minister and the US president? Not forgetting those bureaucrats who have been treated, these past two years, to his lectures on the uselessness of bureaucrats? Sometimes, given that a Hilton T-shirt might say “Big Society”, the message was necessarily incomprehensible. But was there meaningful content, too, in his Bart Simpson-wear? In the Downing Street context – one in which, like many offices, people are expected to dress formally or pay the price – Mr Hilton’s creased shorts seem, at their most polite, to have been a permanent reminder to colleagues that he was/is different, to wit, a dashing free spirit, young beyond his years and endowed with creative talents on a scale that liberate him to move on any time his plans for trashing the state should cease to be appreciated by the resident dullards, including the neatly pressed prime minister.
His determination to affirm this specialness to Barack Obama through the ancient language of socks is slightly less easy to read and may even have been a miscalculation, given that sock-wearing can mean, in some cultures, “I’m a complete git”. Was it wise, now that Hilton has transferred his mission to the States, to advertise his intellectual superiority to the White House’s dapper, highly polished black shoe-wearer? Even Hilton’s greatest rival for in-your-face sartorial insolence, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, wore a jacket, tie – and shoes – to meet the president.
Definitely indecipherable, to those of us communicating at a distance with Mr Hilton’s clothes, has been their level of hygiene. Now, thanks to the political writer Sue Cameron, who chose the week of Hilton’s departure to record a story about his arrival at a policy meeting in shorts and shoe-less, with a plastic bag of oranges, we can experience his clothing in Sensurround. “Mr Hilton started inexpertly peeling an orange,” she says. “There was juice everywhere, not least over the crotch of his brushed cotton shorts. Unabashed, he went off to his next meeting – with some military top brass.”
Compared with this, Boris Johnson’s trademark I’m-too-clever-for-my-shorts state of dishevelment is actively ingratiating. Hilton’s power stains were a clear “fuck you” to passing dignitaries, more akin to Mark Zuckerberg’s historic visit in pyjamas to a venture capital firm called Sequoia, which had previously sacked his partner. David Kirkpatrick, his biographer, quotes Zuckerberg saying he now regrets the insult: “I assume we really offended them and now I feel really bad about that.”
But Zuckerberg has, of course, stuck doggedly to his old, Harvard genius outfit of hoodie and jeans, Silicon Valley’s answer to ermine. “He’s actually showing investors he doesn’t care that much; he’s going to be him,” a suited analyst, Michael Pachter, complained to Bloomberg TV recently, having received, accurately, Zuckerberg’s message of unshakable entrepreneurial confidence. “I think that’s a mark of immaturity,” he added, usefully enhancing the young Facebook brand at the same time that he condemned Zuckerberg to a lifetime in formal slobwear. In fact, thanks to Zuckerberg and The Social Network, it could be many years before any other technological visionary gains access to venture capital without being dressed in whatever would get a normal person banned from Tesco.
Perhaps this modern adaptation of sumptuary laws, whereby only the very richest and most powerful enjoy a licence to dress like losers, helps account for a reported tendency for Oxford students to arrive in their pyjamas for breakfast in college halls where, since the catering staff are presumably washed and dressed, their disarray can be read as a crass assertion of privilege. Unless, as some disgusted comment assumes, far from being inspired by brainy iconoclasts, the students are simply replicating the habits of that other, growing section of the British population that has taken to staying in pyjamas and slippers for the rather different reason that, like depressives, they see no point in getting dressed. Alternatively, now that leading designers have, inevitably, attempted their own dismal take on outdoor pyjamas, the students may merely attest to the terrifying reach of fashion’s Stella McCartney. Whatever the reason, public confusion around the language of pyjamas suggests enough lingering interest in dress codes to make public nightwear a risky choice outside Wall Street.
With their hypersensitivity about appearances, our Olympic authorities will naturally be wondering how to raise standards. What will the world make of our pyjamas? Our mayor? Will it be enough to clear the litter, exile Hilton and tie a large label reading “English eccentric” to Johnson’s ear? How worrying is it that, in Shanghai, prior to the 2010 World Expo, its traditionally pyjama-wearing citizens proved remarkably resistant to dedicated nightwear police and signs saying: “Pyjamas don’t go out of the door”?
As so often, President Obama has something sensible to say on the matter. Asked about another clothing nuisance mysteriously overlooked by Tesco – that of visible underpants and low-slung jeans – he rejected official action. “Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. There are some issues that we face, that you don’t have to pass a law, but that doesn’t mean folks can’t have some sense and some respect for other people and, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear – I’m one of them.”
Bear in mind, however: this was the liberalism of a brother who had never seen Steve Hilton with orange stains all over his crotch. But that is America’s problem now.