Imagine a giant Vegas hotel without the casinos. Replace the dancing girls and gamblers with right-wing political activists, lobbyists and tetchy journalists, shift it all about 2,000 miles northeast, and you can begin to imagine the scene in the lobby of the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Centre, Maryland, on the first evening of CPAC. The Conservative Political Action Committee is Washington DC’s answer to Tory conference, super-sized. Every year the pick of America’s conservative movement gather to bang tables, drink martinis and politely register their disquiet at the state of the nation. Having just watched a man who hopes to be the Republican party’s nominee for president in 2016 give the speech of the day while wearing a button-down collar and suit that made him look as if he had been washed at too high a temperature, I cannot help but notice a strange fact. Everyone, bar the delegation from Texas, is impeccably dressed.
It was not the guns, the girls or even God that most shocked me about DC, it was the suits. You would not think so if you looked around a bar in Westminster, but the parliamentary estate has its own in-house tailor. It’s a throwback to a bygone era before M&S provided the lowly parliamentary bag-carrier with a machine-washable suit. While in DC conservative kids are going wild over the chance to ‘dress British’, many of London’s political class look like highly flammable, polyester-clad mobile-phone salesmen who would immolate if they were rubbed the wrong way up the Palace of Westminster’s carpet.
Traditionally, America has a bad reputation, clothes-wise. Nowhere more than in DC. The West Wing was never famed for its fashion advice, yet fast-forward to the US remake of House of Cards that is currently all the rage, and you can see the difference. The only thing sharper than Kevin Spacey’s put-downs are his suits. Washington is a town that is smartening up its act. Meanwhile, London is being left behind. As the BBC’s The Thick of It notes, government special advisers dress like they work in ‘the men’s department of Debenhams’.
Back at CPAC, and the activists are picking the brains of the gentleman tailor from Benson and Clegg, who has a look in his eye that says the new custom gained at the conference was more than worth the trip over. These are not your hillbilly Tea Party types, but they’re not your K-Street political consultants either — they are those behind-the-scenes guys you will find on either side of the pond who make the political machine tick. They call their look ‘evy-league’ — a little bit of English mixed with preppy. ‘Suits that are well-tailored. Shirts that fit well with appropriate collars. Just good style,’ one tells me. ‘Avoiding skinny ties, wearing pocket squares. You know, generally the things that make you a good dresser. But to be fair, the best dresser I know on the hill is an Englishman.’ There remains something unmistakably American about it. Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many bow-ties around.
It’s a surprise when people dress well in Westminster. The Foreign Secretary manages it, and Chuka Umunna stands out on the Labour benches because you can see he’s spent money on the look. When Ed Miliband stands up at Labour conference he looks far better than he does for the rest of the year, because he’s wearing an Ozwald Boateng number rather that his usual too-short-in-the-sleeve T.M. Lewin two-piece.
Somewhat surprisingly, our two most recent prime ministers share a tailor. Timothy Everest cut suits for both Cameron and Brown; it’s about the only thing they have in common. Dave has upgraded of late to Richard James, and told a London Fashion Week reception last year that he gets his shirts from Charles Tyrwhitt. He was acutely embarrassed in opposition when it was revealed at party conference that his suit was £3,500, while his wife managed in a £65 M&S frock, and that could well be part of London’s problem.
A policy wonk who has spent time working in both DC and SW1 certainly thinks so: ‘People take pride in their image in DC. Especially the conservatives. Image is everything and they revel in the pearls and good suits. In Westminster, people are trying to be something they are not.’ Though it looks to me that Washington’s new-found love of the stitch is just as shallow.
Sipping mint juleps in the back bar at the Old Ebbitt Grill as a matter of tradition, an old buddy puts the world to rights: ‘The degradation of standards for men’s dress in public went hand in hand with increased liberalisation,’ he says, looking sniffily at my undone top button. ‘To dress sharply is to rebel against the vulgarisation and destruction of western culture that has increased rapidly since the 1960s. Conservatives will find any way to reject the casual lefty consensus gripping America.’
He may be right. Washington seems to be undergoing a sartorial renaissance, one that shows no sign of being replicated over here. And it will not, unless conservatives start to be proud of who they are again.
Portrait: David Sparshott