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When real men wore heels: how the demands of empires have shaped the history of fashion

This summer, Japanese businessmen have been asked to disrobe. With an eye on the Kyoto Protocol, the government is requiring business owners to keep thermostats set at a toasty 82 degrees Fahrenheit and cajoling salarymen to shed their jackets and ties. It's a hard sell in a country where, as one apparel retailer explained to The New York Times, it's long been assumed that "the man who is wearing a suit is a businessman and the man who not is unemployed." That's why the government has coaxed cartoonists to draw CEOs in short sleeves, mounted extravagant fashion shows, and recruited the iconic chairman of Toyota, Hiroshi Okuda, to prowl the runways jacketless, hoping that eco-friendly fashion will trickle down.

In Washington, however, doors still swing open for pinstripe suits. Though much of the corporate world has gladly left cufflinks and wingtips in the closet, Senate suites and federal agencies remain sanctuaries for starched shirts. On Pennsylvania Avenue, formality starts at the top. If the commander in chief doesn't wear a suit he seems, to voters, less than presidential, incongruous with the lavish decor of the Oval Office. (Jimmy Carter bucked tradition, but his cardigans inspired giggles, not imitation.) With the gold standard set in the White House, all members of the president's court--cabinet officials, senators, policy advisors, and lobbyists seeking his attention--feel compelled to match the shine on his shoes.

Fashions change, but wardrobe's power to signal rank and membership endures. In Dressed to Rule, a book that would appeal to Machiavelli and Martha Stewart alike, Philip Mansel retells modern history with an emphasis on how political leaders have used dress to impress and transgress. Editor of The Court Historian journal, Mansel gleans details from coronation portraits, family albums, travel diaries, and newsreels to show how rebels and kings have wielded highland kilts, high heels, and headscarves as shorthand for identity and ideology. Strategic displays of fabric and flesh often denote not only who's in command, but whether the claim to reign is staked on birth, might, or wit. An historian by training, Mansel is careful in his assertions, and his book is not in service of a central argument. Yet, he implicitly builds the case that no political upheaval has ever occurred without an accompanying revolution in dress.

Once the alpha male of the Western world, Louis XIV shrouded himself in resplendent satin coats with gold embroidery and lace sleeves, silk stockings and full-bottomed wigs--which Mansel suggests showcased the Sun King's divinely-ordained right to rule France. At a time when most mortals wore course shirts of flax and wool, the king brandished strategic splendor as later rulers would display military might. He also invited his courtiers to watch him dress. Robing the king was an elaborate 90-minute ritual each morning, with attendants crowding the antechambers awaiting their turn to enter. Only the highest officials of state were admitted while he was shaving; bishops, marshals, and provincial governors could enter later. Visiting dignitaries were sometimes awarded the privilege of handing the king his shirt. The ritual afforded the French court a close look at the king's new clothes--significant because nobles affirmed their allegiance by imitating the king--and kept business flowing to the nation's silk looms and lace factories. The dress industry then employed a third of wage-earners in France (many of the lace factories were founded by finance minister Colbert), and if members of the Third Estate were busy stitching sleeves, they had less time to plot rebellion.

Admission to court functions and access to his majesty's counsel was assured by proper attire: Male courtiers were required to don silk or velvet coats encrusted with jewels and embroidery, while women squeezed into corseted dresses with puffy sleeves and long trains. Ordinances prohibited untitled aspirants from donning such finery. One emblematic accessory, which Louis turned into a must-have item among both ladies and gents at court, Was a pair of red high heels, or talons rouges. The fashion, as Mansel explains, advertised a lifestyle of leisure, "demonstrat[ing] that nobles did not dirty their shoes." Seventeenth-century aristocrats, after all, believed they were born into privilege and didn't need to saunter far or break a sweat to earn their keep.

Soon discerning rulers across Europe coveted talons rouges. With outthrust calves and pointed toes, contemporary monarchs in Britain, Austria, Saxony, and elsewhere flaunted scarlet heels in coronation portraits. French fashion marched farther than French armies, as dolls dressed in the latest styles from Versailles were prized as far as Constantinople and St. Petersburg, and, Mansel notes, even in capitals distinctly hostile to the Bourbon throne, including London and Vienna.

But as the novels and essays of Voltaire and Montesquieu wound along the same trade routes, Enlightenment thought pricked Europeans to question aristocratic entitlement and kingship based upon divine right. In Eastern Europe, military monarchs began to fortify their armies, articulate new justifications for kingship, and restock their closets. Frederick II of Prussia, who saw the army as central to national greatness and prided himself on the martial virtues of strength, stamina, and public service (he spoke of himself as "the first servant of my state"), paraded in military uniform to state dinners and diplomatic functions, the more battle-worn, the better. "The more victories he won," Mansel notes, "the shabbier his uniforms became. Some were stained with snuff, torn, darned and patched at the elbows. He wanted to look as he appeared on the battlefield." Showing off his dirty boots had become a way to flaunt work ethic and war prowess.

On the day she seized power in a coup, Catherine the Great of Russia donned the uniform of the palace guard to enlist their help overthrowing her husband. To commemorate her special day, she commissioned a portrait of herself on horseback in the regiment's green and gold uniform, wearing boots and brandishing a sword. When she later hosted state dinners for soldiers, she often descended the staircase in her "regimental gown"--a singular hybrid with a military jacket-like top, glittering insignia on the lapels, and a billowing skirt. By 1790, court dress in Russia and Prussia resembled that of army battalions more than of ballrooms, as martial attire was practically de rigueur and well-dressed gentlemen wore swords.

As the industrial revolution helped jumpstart the rise of the British empire, British regiments and diplomats marched new fashions across the globe: the full-length trouser, which the English infantry favored over constricting knee-breeches (bending far forward had been hazardous to the seams); the black jacket for formal attire (it didn't show soot in nineteenth-century London); and the advent of khaki in workaday clothes. Khaki, which means "dust-colored" in Hindi, was first introduced in 1848 for British regimental uniforms in India; later the color was adopted by the entire army (and later still by legions of casual-Friday office workers).

India's rajahs disdained the garb of the imperial officers, but in many regions never forcibly colonized, dark suits and trousers were viewed as the uniform of modernization. In 1871, the Emperor of Japan traded his customary robes for western-style jackets and required his officials to follow suit. When one official pleaded to wear traditional robes, a minister of the emperor quipped, "Are you still ignorant of the world situation?" At the end of the nineteenth century, Afghan princes were seen hiking up mountaintops in Highland kilts.

As the sun set on military and colonial empires, western leaders again changed tailors. Two world wars rattled Europe's enthusiasm for martial uniforms, as dressing to affirm allegiance to the state (anywhere other than the battlefield) became an unpleasant reminder of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini regimes. Stalin's fondness for strutting in martial attire at Yalta and later Mao's attempt to impose a civilian uniform in China did nothing to spur a revival. After World War II, as economic strength increasingly became the engine of international prestige, many returning soldiers went to work in offices, and the business suit became the uniform of the successful globetrotting gentlemen.

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