Explain Boris Johnson's look to me, please?
September 4, 2019 5:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm an American, and I always thought Brits who are posh or wealthy or in top levels of government made a big deal about their super-perfectly tailored suits from Saville Row. So please explain to me, a totally ignorant outsider, why Boris Johnson is always so rumpled, with his pants hanging down and his shirt blousing out from the waistline. Is this a purposeful affectation to send a message? Is he just a slob? I'm sure there are levels of this that I can't even begin to know as a person from Los Angeles, so please explain them to me.

Bonus level: And what's with his hair?

I know you're all going through a terrible time right now so I don't mean to minimize that. This is just something I've always been curious about.
posted by BlahLaLa to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (33 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's not the way class works in the UK: there's nothing more middlebrow than being seen to care about about how other people perceive you---and there's nothing more middlebrow than a class discussion about middlebrow. People like Johnson behave the way they do because they can; the worst thing and what they would avoid at all costs would be to be seen to be striving or to care about appearances, the definition of middle-class. Class is displayed by signals, but recall the memorably vicious putdown of Michael Heseltine (Conservative politician, but from a non-upper class background) that he was the kind of person who had to buy his own furniture.

Take Fintan O'Toole's recent NYRB article:
This ignorance is not stupidity—Johnson is genuinely clever and, as his fictional alter ego Barlow shows, quite self-aware. It is the studied carelessness affected by a large part of the English upper class whose manners and attitudes Johnson—in reality the product of a rather bohemian bourgeois background—thoroughly absorbed. Consequences are for the little people, seriousness for those who are paid to clean up the mess...
Or Rafael Behr's great line:
In part, Johnson is captive to the public school cult of effortless dilettantism that despises diligence as vulgar and swotty...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:12 PM on September 4 [43 favorites]


IMO, John Oliver does a great job explaining Boris Johnson.
posted by gnutron at 6:14 PM on September 4 [33 favorites]


Class is displayed by signals, but recall the memorably vicious putdown of Michael Heseltine (Conservative politician, but from a non-upper class background) that he was the kind of person who had to buy his own furniture.

We see this in the US too, but perhaps it’s an East Coast culture thing and that’s why it’s puzzling from LA? If you can find an old copy of the Preppy Handbook it’s all in there. Johnson looks (and acts) like an overgrown lax bro.
posted by sallybrown at 6:40 PM on September 4 [14 favorites]


He's going for lovable buffoon or eccentric uncle, and the hair is Stan Laurelesque bewilderment. Only without the lovable, eccentric or gentle bewilderment bits. He's nothing if not calculated.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 6:42 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


If you had any doubt that Boris Johnson is just plain weird, watch this interview where he talks about his hobby. This is the leader of Great Britain.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:58 PM on September 4


Class is displayed by signals, but recall the memorably vicious putdown of Michael Heseltine (Conservative politician, but from a non-upper class background) that he was the kind of person who had to buy his own furniture.

Or more recently, of Kate Middleton, that she comes from the kind of family that has tarmac on their drive.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:59 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


he was the kind of person who had to buy his own furniture.

the kind of family that has tarmac on their drive.

Well this is fascinating. What are the assumed preferable alternatives here?
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:27 PM on September 4 [15 favorites]


Yes, purposeful affectation. It's supposed to be disarming (see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as linked above)
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:28 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Well this is fascinating. What are the assumed preferable alternatives here?


You inherit your furniture, just as you do your pictures and your silver. Not only does this show that your family has old stuff going back to the old times but that your family has lots of old stuff and that you're not some kind of intellectual who might have a trashy interest in modern design. Naturally, virtually everyone buys some furniture and silver, because after a couple of generations even a very large household would be quite broken up, but people turn a blind eye.

Also, of course, the vast majority of country houses are 19th century but people like to pretend that they're older, and the vast majority of inherited furniture was either bought antiques or at best bought in the 19th century. People like to pretend that these great fortunes all go back to the Battle of Agincourt (or colonial days in the US) but most of it's Victorian.

ETA: "Most of it's Victorian" meaning that most of it's commercial - big industrial fortunes - not aristocratic/derived from land.
posted by Frowner at 7:33 PM on September 4 [20 favorites]


Or more recently, of Kate Middleton, that she comes from the kind of family that has tarmac on their drive.

So, what is tarmac and what do I want on my driveway instead of it?
posted by mccxxiii at 8:02 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Tarmac is called pavement in the US. It's associated with new houses and therefore petite bourgeois. You want gravel.
posted by caek at 8:12 PM on September 4 [11 favorites]


So, what is tarmac and what do I want on my driveway instead of it?

Tarmac is asphalt paving, otherwise known as blacktop, your typical suburban street.

Don't you watch those PBS British mini-series? You need a gravel driveway that is weeded and hand raked by the servants every day.
posted by JackFlash at 8:44 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


“If you had any doubt that Boris Johnson is just plain weird, watch this interview where he talks about his hobby. This is the leader of Great Britain.”

That is definitely not his hobby. Some say it’s a move to bury his lie on which he sold Brexit by influencing the google search results on ‘boris bus’.

Another difference between the US and UK here that’s worthwhile to point out in this discussion is the meaning of Middle Class. In the UK it’s more equivalent to what we understand in the US as Upper Class and all the connotations that go along with that. I would argue that the majority in the UK are not Middle Class, but I’m happy to be corrected here if I’ve mischaracterised things (I’m an American living in the UK).
posted by iamkimiam at 10:41 PM on September 4 [8 favorites]


This Twitter thread from an ex-colleague of Johnson's is relevant

Rowson: "For fuck's sake for once in your life drop the fucking P G Wodehouse bollocks and give me some fucking answers!"
Johnson: "I think you'll find what you term 'the P G Wodehouse bollocks' has served me very well thus far!"
posted by BinaryApe at 12:22 AM on September 5 [11 favorites]


If we look at earlier photos of Johnson, though (like the Bullingdon Club one) his hair is more normal - and everyone is sharply dressed.

But since entering politics he's cultivated an image of being a likeable buffoon (hiding his hardline and bigoted views). See e.g. getting stuck on a zipline, boxing, giving the thumbs up and just basically every picture here. And the thing is, it kind of works - I lived in London when he was mayor, and even though I'm on the left, it was hard not to get sucked in to the whole Boris persona, that he'd be an amusing and enjoyable person to have a drink with. And it's done very well for him (as BinaryApe points out, on preview).
posted by Pink Frost at 12:35 AM on September 5


Much of the above is on point, but also: /everything/ about the public "Boris" persona is an act that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his family calls him Al) has honed for decades.

(See this FB article by a well known British broadcaster Jeremy Vine for a perfect example. Short version: Boris arrives late at event to give speech, rushes through prep with people at the table & then gives a great speech to rousing applause. Is then observed to do exactly the /same/ thing at another event, where he gives exactly the same speech. But the point is not that Boris repeats speechs - every after dinner speaker does that - but rather that the arriving late & giving a great off the cuff speech is all part of the “Boris” performance. The whole thing is a put on in other words, although he’s been doing it for so long that the boundary between the Boris persona and anything internal has probably blurred somewhat. But it was and is a preformance first and foremost.)
posted by pharm at 12:38 AM on September 5 [19 favorites]


This is true in the US as well although not as obvious in places like Los Angeles. The truly upperclass thing is an inversion of what the striving class is doing. The wealthiest people in the US -including Silicon Valley billionaires - wear baggy jeans and sweatshirts. I know that I seem to have conflated money and class but in the US they overlap much more than in the UK.

I'm always reminded of articles on the UK Royal family such as this one about Prince Charles:
The Prince is well known for his thrifty approach to clothing. His appearance on Countryfile in 2013 caused amusement among viewers for his patched-up jacket, which was still going strong despite clearly seeing better days.

His Royal Air Force uniform is understood to date back to 1972, he still wears a pair of shoes bought in 1971, and has his dinner jacket cuffs deliberately turned up so they can be easily repaired as and when they get frayed.
In that regard, Charles is not actually atypical for his class. And so there are others, not born into such aristocracy, who may then ape the upper class's slovenliness (which is how one can show also that one is above such petty concerns as class markers) in order to, yes, broadcast their class.
posted by vacapinta at 12:49 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


If you want to read more about class and class signifiers in Britain, I highly recommend Kate Fox's book Watching the English
posted by crocomancer at 1:04 AM on September 5 [12 favorites]


Another difference between the US and UK here that’s worthwhile to point out in this discussion is the meaning of Middle Class. In the UK it’s more equivalent to what we understand in the US as Upper Class and all the connotations that go along with that. I would argue that the majority in the UK are not Middle Class, but I’m happy to be corrected here if I’ve mischaracterised things (I’m an American living in the UK).

I don't know about this. I think the standard '3 class system' may actually be pretty transferrable between the two countries nowadays. The main distinction between Middle and Upper class being whether your wealth is inherited or self-made. So in the UK, Upper class = royals, aristos, Tory politicians, etc, whereas in the US it equals your Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes, Trumps even(?).

(Dual citizen here who has lived in both countries, but still learning too!)

Of course, in reality, class is way more fractured than that, here's a 'What class are you?' quiz from the BBC from 2013. It also has a link to this US view, which is interesting.
posted by atlantica at 2:45 AM on September 5


It basically screams: "I'm so powerful that what I look like doesn't even matter".

It's also acted as an effective disguise whereby he could fool a significant section of the population that he's a harmless buffoon, while hiding his viciousness and hard-right agenda behind his back.

A colleague of mine was once on a flight with him in the midst of some political brouhaha. He got off the plane with his advisor/PR person, and they all paused before heading out into public and Boris said something like "Hang on, do my hair" and the PR person messed it up. It's 100% calculated and intentional.
posted by penguin pie at 4:23 AM on September 5 [18 favorites]


I'm a Brit, and my impression has always been that middle-class is about your up-bringing and career, in comparison to the working class. So if you did any further education and had a job, say, teaching, you were middle-class. Even if you were really struggling for money. My parents are solidly middle-class and considered themselves as such even when we were up to our eyeballs in debt - and justifiably so, because my mother ended up in a very well paid job with no real work experience in 20 years because she went to Oxford and could speak a foreign language.

The Upper Class assumes inherited wealth, but there are occasions where someone inherits land and a title but not the cash for a new roof - see many pj Wodehouse books. They don't always feel the need to "dress up" because hell, they don't have to, and their families didn't stay wealthy buying flashy new clothes / cars / furniture when the old ones are well made and still perfectly functional. In fact there certainly used to be some stigma against brand new stuff - it meant your parents weren't rich enough to buy the really good stuff that would last long enough to be handed down.

Anyway, Boris Johnston is deliberately assuming the mantle of buffoon so we don't see him as a snake in the grass. And as a country we seem to be rapidly adopting the American view of class, which is based much more heavily on wealth.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:37 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


He looks like that because he doesn't give a shit. Genuinely. I don't think he's calculated about his look at all. I don't think he could look handsome and sophisticated if he tried. He's just a spoiled brat who doesn't give a shit. Look at his siblings - they're not scruffy. Perhaps his father is but everything about Boris screams 'schoolboy' including his look.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 4:49 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


See the response re: John Oliver. He has captured most of the detail. But it is well documented that Johnson intentionally messes up his hair and clothes before public appearances, and his buffoonishness is a calculated personality, as opposed to "he doesn't give a shit". Even the things he chooses to talk about are meant to disarm the interviewer and misdirect them from topics he doesn't want to directly address.

Which makes it even the more maddening that his decision making and ultimate goals are so moronic and stupid. But, typically, people who need to use such obfuscation have flawed logic and goals in the first place.
posted by rich at 6:00 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear, the majority of people here think he's a buffoon (I'd post a stronger word, but I don't believe it's one that's favoured on here). For years, he's got away with this public image of being lovable silly Boris, what a legend, look how funny he is. See the 'getting stuck on a zipline' incident - which was completely staged. Now he's in a position most likely beyond his abilities, that's slipping.

It may be that that's what passes as 'acceptable eccentricity' in the upper class circles in which he's moved - someone less well-connected and less wealthy wouldn't be able to get away with it. You know that idea that some minority groups have to work twice as hard to get half as far as mediocre white men? He doesn't *need* to smarten up.

Also: most of us outside the US think Trump looks utterly ridiculous, particularly for someone with his level of wealth and access to spin doctors and others to advise on his image etc.
posted by mippy at 6:35 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


"In that regard, Charles is not actually atypical for his class. And so there are others, not born into such aristocracy, who may then ape the upper class's slovenliness (which is how one can show also that one is above such petty concerns as class markers) in order to, yes, broadcast their class."

Probably a good comparison is with people like Muffy from The Daily Prep.
posted by mippy at 6:39 AM on September 5


Also: most of us outside the US think Trump looks utterly ridiculous, particularly for someone with his level of wealth and access to spin doctors and others to advise on his image etc.
Many of us inside think the same thing.
I hadn’t really seen photos of Boris Johnson before reading this thread (I try to avoid the news as much as possible for mental health reasons) and wow, it’s pretty chilling how much the two of them look alike.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:29 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


So many great answers in here. Thank you so much.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:59 AM on September 5


Genuinely upper-class no-fucks-to-give is more Duke of Devonshire / Debo Mitford.

Jacob Rees-Mogg looking like a Victorian undertaker is a different signifier: his family is regional gentry, with a manor house rather than an aristocratic title, though his grandfather married a rich American in best Downton fashion.

A point of reference here is Toad of Toad Hall, a stupid self-centred amphibian who has acquired a more rogueish sheen over the years, perhaps because the iconic stop-motion version was voiced by David 'Del Boy' Jason.

I highly recommend Kate Fox's book Watching the English

Kind of? She's one of the Living Marxism / Revolutionary Communist Party gang who contrarianed themselves to the far right and is now a Brexit Party candidate. That makes her social niceties work more suspect in retrospect.
posted by holgate at 10:07 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


"You want gravel."

This always make my brain blue screen. In rural western Canada, most of us have gravel driveways, but the really posh folk (acreage types) will spring for pavement, which is significantly more expensive to install and maintain.
posted by Kurichina at 11:18 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


Kate Fox's book Watching the English

Kind of? She's one of the Living Marxism / Revolutionary Communist Party gang who contrarianed themselves to the far right and is now a Brexit Party candidate. That makes her social niceties work more suspect in retrospect.
holgate, you're thinking of Claire Fox. Kate Fox just writes nice books and does research.
posted by altolinguistic at 4:04 PM on September 5 [7 favorites]


Also: most of us outside the US think Trump looks utterly ridiculous, particularly for someone with his level of wealth and access to spin doctors and others to advise on his image etc.

I don't think Trump's slovenly suits are as calculated as Boris Johnson's. Trump is just fat and trying to hide it with suits that are way too big for him that he buys off the rack (the tarmac of clothing). I doubt Sarah Huckabee Sanders was mussing his hair. His attire definitely has an air of striving (the biggest insult from old money) - the suits are usually expensive, new, and good quality; just ill-fitting.
posted by bluefly at 6:10 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]


altolinguistic: thank fuck for that, and curse my broken brain.

(I can uncancel Passport to the Pub too.)
posted by holgate at 8:08 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Nicholas Soames on Jacob Rees-Mogg (paywalled, so linking to tweetcap) : "He is an absolute fraud, he is a living example of what a moderately cut double-breasted suit and a decent tie can do with an ultra-posh voice and a bit of ginger stuck up his arse."
posted by holgate at 11:24 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


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