By John Helmer, Moscow
As if it weren’t already certain, President Vladimir Putin intends to run again for president in 2018. He has made this visibly obvious (lead image), though it’s not yet officially so. The signal Putin has chosen – a unique one in the history of European and American leaders of state — is one which kings display on their chests. That’s peaked lapels instead of notched lapels on their suit jackets. Until Putin, the last president in Moscow to wear peaked lapels was Mikhail Gorbachev. By the time he did that in August 1991, he had just five months left in power.
Lapels are to men’s coats as foreskins are to penises. They lost their function long ago. These days, lapels are a leftover, a fashionable decoration to some, a fetish to others.
In the evolution of men’s coats in the European climate, rows of buttons ran all the way up the jacket to allow it to close with a collar at the neck. Military uniforms always buttoned under the chin. With climate warming; closed vehicles for travelling; interior heating in houses; and empires with tropical spots, it became customary to fold jacket collars open at the neck, then open them all the way down to the waist. This opening created jacket flaps, aka lapels. Removing the buttons, notches and froggings to fasten them eliminated the old function, leaving behind a fashion. In tailoring terms, as modelled by Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II, the lapel started with a decorative flap (below, left); then cut to a notch (centre), or to a peak (right).
Regime change doesn’t mean lapel change. The more men who have replaced the Russian monarchy, and the less militarized their rule, the more variety in their lapels.
Senior Kremlin leaders have always had the services of the Kremlin tailor. The latest in that line to talk, an Indian who made suits for then President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, was ordered by the security services to keep silence. A spokesman for Putin’s press service said today there is no information on where his suits come from.
Tailors come and go, but the fashion in lapels has not. Since 1991, notched lapels have been the uniform for the business day. For tailors, cutting peaked lapels requires exceptional skill. The result – curvature of the lapel, stitching at the lapel edges, and the design of the peaks – is invariably more distinctive than notching. In this way, peaked lapels are the cut of politicians who are secure in their power, and confident of keeping it. The peaked lapel cut makes a politician stand out from his colleagues, rivals, opponents. The members of the Soviet Politburo didn’t wear them; Lenin did; Stalin could, though he preferred military jackets. Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko were never seen in peaked lapels.
When Boris Yeltsin was on the rise, he wore notched lapels. As he deteriorated in mind, as well as in power, his lapels did too. Here (below, left) the over-confident Mikhail Gorbachev (peak lapels) in August 1991, still President of the Soviet Union, was meeting Yelstin (notches), then President of Russia. And here, below right, is Yeltsin announcing his exit on December 31, 1999, his notches slipping almost into shawls.
In the modern history of men’s costumes, no source of cutting skill and design has lasted as long as Savile Row, the street of bespoke tailors in London since 1850, when the tailors succeeded the doctors because the owners of the mansions in Mayfair began to live longer and could afford to worry more about the cut of their cloth than of their liver.
Bespoke, or made to measure suits must always be more expensive than machine-made garments. But British politicians who aim to get elected don’t want to appear to have paid too much on Savile Row; that’s because they don’t want voters to suspect them of stealing the money and lavishing it on their vanity. The greatest lapel cutter in Savile Row history was Tommy Nutter (below, left), who practised on the street between 1969 and 1976. Pop singers (right) wore his suits; politicians didn’t dare.
Prime Minister Tony Blair never wore peaked lapels except in evening suits, and claimed he bought his business suits from an Armani rack in Italy. Gordon Browne, the Labour Party Chancellor of the Exchequer under Blair from 1997 to 2007, then Blair’s successor as prime minister, 2007-2010, bought and wore Savile Row tailoring. So did David Cameron, the Conservative Party Prime Minister between 2010 and 2016, Likewise, they paid a lot for their Savile Row suits, but they concealed it by notching their lapels. In his formal evening dress Cameron wore shawl lapels (left) more often than peaked lapels (right).
The only British politician to wear peaked lapels regularly in public is the king in waiting, Prince Charles. In continental Europe it’s the same. Politicians elected by the people wear notched or shawl lapels; politicians elected by God or divine right wear peaked lapels. In addition to Price Charles (below, left), that in includes King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden (centre), and King Felipe VI of Spain.
In the US Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower wore peaked lapels from time to time. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama never – except for evening costume.
Kings serve for life; prime ministers, chancellors and presidents for one or two terms, or if they are lucky, three or four. Peaked lapels mean the wearer thinks he is in for life. There is only one exception to the rule that fixed-term or short-run political leaders in Europe and America always wear notched lapels. There was one prime minister to wear peaked labels through four terms and nine years, a record in Italy; that was Silvio Berlusconi.