Fashion

The Dictator, Dressing Down The West

In tailored suit and open-necked shirt Saddam Hussein bears a distressing resemblance to actor George Clooney in the film
In tailored suit and open-necked shirt Saddam Hussein bears a distressing resemblance to actor George Clooney in the film "Syriana." (Left: Pool Photo by Ben Curtis -- Right: Glen Wilson - Warner Bros. via AP)

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005

One of the more memorable images from the trial of Saddam Hussein is the ex-dictator in his power suit. On Monday, the former Iraqi leader sat in a pen in Baghdad with his co-defendants. He was dressed in a black pinstriped suit, white shirt and white pocket square. No tie.

Hussein's decidedly Western attire stood out because the other men facing judgment were wearing traditional Arab robes and head coverings.

In the United States, it is common to see defendants enter the courtroom wearing their two-button best, but Hussein was wearing the clothing of Americans even as he was proclaiming his U.S.-masterminded trial invalid. Hussein, full of bluster and indignation over the Western "occupiers" and "invaders," was dressed in clothes that have come to symbolize capitalism and international diplomacy -- concepts he has never embraced. The suit celebrates civility, a concept at odds with what is known about Hussein's personality.

The pocket square was a particularly distracting flourish. Paired with a tie, a pocket square tends to make a man look more formally attired. But without that accompaniment, it can look almost jaunty and rakish -- like Sinatra or Dino in Vegas. Here was a man accused of ordering the execution of 148 people, accessorizing in the manner of a lounge act. (In October, he skipped the pocket square but unbuttoned his shirt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Tom Ford stud style.)

Hussein's style choice throws the viewer off balance. Is his modest paean to the Flamingo a simple reflection of his hair-dyeing, gold-leaf-loving, frightful vanity? Or has he decided to beat the "occupiers" from within their own system? Take it over, or mock it?

Men from Africa and Asia wear business suits all the time, and choosing to do so can be nothing more than an aesthetic preference. It can also be in recognition of a specific event or function as a kind of sartorial diplomacy in matters of state. In business, a suit is part of an international language of profit margins and exchange rates. It is a silent way of announcing: All of us at this table are here to make money. Religion, culture, emotions have been left at the door.

But in the complicated relationship between the Middle East and the West, politics, culture and religion are woven into the fabric of traditional dishdashas and Ivy League specials. There's no getting around it. In the movie "Syriana," about the CIA, the oil trade, the Middle East and terrorism, Arab leaders are constantly switching from robes to suits based on the message and the audience. When a prince from an oil-rich emirate speaks to the international media about the progressive policies he envisions for his kingdom and of his desire to rid his country of the longtime American presence, he wears a traditional robe. When he sits with his countrymen and discusses improving the rights of women, he wears a robe. But, typically, when he talks business with foreigners, he wears a suit.

The robe, in the eyes of outsiders, functions as religious reassurance and cultural defiance. Its presence identifies a situation as personal and, perhaps, emotional. The suit signifies dispassion and emotional neutrality.

In the courtroom, Hussein's appearance has muddied expectations and assumptions. (With his improved tailoring and George Clooney's distressing "Syriana" beard and weight gain, the two are looking scarily similar.) The military uniform that he favored before the invasion is gone and with it all of the obvious markings of power, intimidation and fearlessness. What can replace that kind of wool and cotton armor?

Instead of wearing a robe or a kaffiyeh as a statement of pride, invincibility or solidarity with Middle Eastern culture, Hussein wears a suit to his trial. He stands out and he stands alone. It may be that he has determined that the best plan of attack -- or defense -- is to make a visual declaration that he will not be dismissed as a deposed leader who has been swept from the world stage. By wearing the uniform of international politics, he proclaims himself still in the game. He may not have military authority, that suit seems to say, but he has political might. He's not a killer, but a statesman.

With all the world watching as the trial slowly unfolds, the suit underscores the sweep of Hussein's semiotics campaign. It is not regional; it is global. He's speaking an international language rather than a regional dialect.

Hussein seems to be taking advantage of the message in those Wall Street, powerbroker, democracy pinstripes. He's also mocking that symbolism simply by hiding behind it. And surely there is pleasure in that. It's always more satisfying to communicate one's disdain in a language that is certain to be universally understood.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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