Fashion has always played a role in politics. Monarchs and heads of state have used clothing to cultivate an image, and in some cases, their styles became so iconic that they filtered into the mainstream. From Julius Caesar to Nelson Mandela, check out 10 of history’s most fashionable world leaders.
1. Julius Caesar had a reputation as a fashion-conscious dandy.
According to the ancient historian Suetonius, the future Roman dictator caused a stir in his early career by sporting “wrist-length sleeves with fringes” on his purple senatorial tunic and wearing his belt very loosely fastened. His flamboyant clothing was all the rage among his supporters, but it also scandalized some of his more conservative contemporaries. Sulla, another prominent Roman leader, supposedly once said of Caesar “beware of that boy with the loose clothes!”
2. Cleopatra was a style icon in her day, too.
The storied Queen of the Nile only spent a short time in Rome during her relationship with Julius Caesar, but she seems to have had a considerable influence on the city’s fashion. Surviving art and statues indicate that many upper-class Roman women adopted Cleopatra’s trademark “melon” coiffure—tightly braided hair pulled into a bun at the back of the neck—as well as her penchant for pearl jewelry and eyeliner.
3. Louis XIV transformed France into the fashion capital of the world.
The so-called Sun King jumpstarted his nation’s textile and jewelry industries, championed bold and bright colors in clothing design, and instituted a lavish dress code that made his court the height of 17th century style. Louis was also something of a trendsetter in his own right. During his 72-year reign, he famously promoted red-heeled shoes as a status symbol—they remained the calling card of the nobility for a century—and he is often credited with popularizing wigs.
4. Benjamin Franklin inspired a distinctive hairstyle abroad.
The septuagenarian inventor and statesman made quite the splash when he arrived in Paris in 1776 to seek support for the American Revolution. His likeness appeared in numerous portraits and pieces of memorabilia, and the aristocracy became obsessed with imitating his style of dress, particularly the beaver fur cap that he wore to help cultivate a frontier image. The hat was so popular that it inspired the “coiffure a la Franklin,” an unusual hairstyle that saw French ladies would fashion their wigs to resemble a fur cap.
5. Women wear blouses today because of military man Giuseppe Garibaldi.
During the mid-19th century, the revolutionary led a small army on a series of campaigns that helped secure the unification of Italy. Since his men lacked uniforms, they resorted to wearing baggy, crimson-colored shirts into battle, which earned them the nickname the “Redshirts.” As Garibaldi’s fame grew, female admirers around the world adopted a similar-looking wool “Garibaldi shirt” as an everyday piece of outerwear. In 1862, the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book even predicted that the functional, comfortable garments were “destined to produce a change amounting to revolution in ladies’ costume.” Sure enough, the military-inspired tops are now often cited as a forerunner of the women’s blouse.
6. Queen Alexandra’s copycats in Britain made some awkward fashion choices.
From the moment she married Prince Edward VII of England in 1863, high society admirers eagerly copied Alexandra’s sleek jackets and skirts, leading to a new trend of suit-like attire for women. Likewise, when she began wearing choker necklaces to hide a scar on her neck, the accessories instantly became a hot item in ladies’ fashion. The royal was so beloved that some women even tried to imitate her “Alexandra limp”—the result of a case of rheumatic fever—by wearing mismatched shoes or different-sized heels. The bizarre fad swept across Britain in the late-1860s, prompting one newspaper to muse, “There must be a line at which even fashionable folly may be expected to stop short.”
7. Winston Churchill wore custom-made “romper suits.”
Along with his signature polka dot bow ties, Britain’s WWII-era prime minister is also credited with popularizing an unusual cross between a business suit and a workman’s coveralls. Churchill intended for the comfy onesies (known as “romper suits” and “siren suits”) to be easily slipped on over his clothes during air raids, and he eventually had several versions made in everything from pin stripes to green velvet. He even wore them to meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower. Thanks to Churchill’s endorsement, the suit later became a popular garment in Britain’s wartime air raid shelters.
8. India’s first Prime Minister became an accidental style icon in the 1960s.
Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t the first person to wear his distinctive short-collared coats, but he made them so famous that they’re now commonly known as “Nehru jackets.” It started when he was repeatedly photographed wearing a traditional knee-length garment known as an “achkan.” Western retailers began marketing a shortened version of the coat, and before long it had been adopted by celebrities such as Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr. and the members of the Beatles. The jackets largely fell out of fashion in the United States in the 1970s, but they’re still popular among certain Indian politicians including the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi.
9. Jacqueline Kennedy was a trendsetter-in-chief.
The first lady is most famously identified with her pillbox hats, which she wore both on the day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and the day of his assassination, but she helped popularize countless other fashions including white gloves, silk scarves and oversized sunglasses. Kennedy worked closely with designer Oleg Cassini to make her chic outfits, and her style eventually became so iconic that department stores started making recreations of her dresses for women hoping to achieve the “Jackie look.”
10. Nelson Mandela’s vibrant garments became known as “Madiba shirts” after his family clan name.
For most of his career, South African President Nelson Mandela eschewed suits in favor of wearing brightly colored, elaborately patterned long-sleeved shirts. The onetime freedom fighter and political prisoner fell in love with the style in the early 1990s after being gifted some batik fabric shirts by the president of Indonesia. Mandela made the shirts his trademark, and he later helped spark a new trend in South African fashion by sporting hundreds of different versions patterned with everything from fish to flowers.
Written by Andrew Andrews