Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Power dressing: What world leaders' clothes say about them

By Barry Neild, for CNN
  • History has shown that hunger for power goes hand-in-hand with sartorial obsession
  • Barack Obama, Kim Jong Il and Hamid Karzai have all been touted as style icons
  • Lamb hats, elevated shoes and chunky knitwear among leaders' unusual choices

(CNN) -- When Marilyn Monroe quipped that all it took to conquer the world was the right pair of shoes, she perhaps knew more than she was letting on.

Shoes, suits, dresses and even hats have all become the obsessions of many of the people who have conquered if not the world, then at least parts of it.

The link between style and global leaders is nothing new. As historical figures such as France's Napoleon Bonaparte have shown, interest in fashion goes hand-in-hand with a hunger for power -- often with mixed results.

Recently it was revealed that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had his name woven into the pinstripes of his immaculate suits, a sartorial touch that has probably endeared him even less to the people who have stripped him of power and put him on trial.

Here we've put together a list of some of the powerful men and women of today who have chosen to cloak their naked political ambitions in outfits that have raised their profile as fashion icons -- and more often than not raised a few eyebrows.

Barack Obama

Habitually clad in a boiler suit tailored to highlight his portly frame, Kim Jong Il seems an unlikely style icon

Barack Obama's presidency might be looking a bit frayed around the edges these days, but the commander-in-chief is still looking as dapper as ever in his sharply tailored suits. Of course, it's easy to argue that, as one of the world's most powerful men, the U.S. president is always going to enjoy a certain fashion kudos, but it's hard to envision his defeated 2008 Republican rival John McCain being voted -- as Obama was in a 2009 survey -- more stylish than Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Daniel Craig.

Hamid Karzai

Hamid Karzai's flowing cape and hat combo has remained unchanged since he was installed as president of Afghanistan nearly a decade ago. But when American fashion designer Tom Ford describes you as "the chicest man on the planet," it's probably wise to keep wearing the same outfit, even if it does include headgear made from an unborn lamb.

Kim Jong Il

Habitually clad in a boiler suit tailored to highlight his portly frame, Kim Jong Il seems an unlikely style icon. But, if you believe North Korean state media, his monotone zip-up outfits -- usually coupled with the kind of dark glasses favored by oxy-acetylene welders -- are so cool, the secretive leader has sparked a major craze. A report in 2010 quoted a "French fashion expert" claiming "Kim Jong Il mode" was spreading worldwide. Curiously, Vogue magazine has yet to pick up on this.

Yulia Tymoshenko

The striped pullovers favored by Bolivia's socialist president Evo Morales make a strong political statement

She's no longer prime minister but Yulia Tymoshenko is still a visible presence in Ukraine, even if this is largely down to her hair: a braided blonde halo in a style not seen much since Princess Leia's planet was destroyed by the Death Star. Tymoshenko's glamorous frocks and stiletto heels have also created a disturbance in The Force, reportedly violating parliamentary dress codes, but she has recently toned things down after being put on trial (for alleged abuse of power, not crimes against fashion).

Evo Morales

Knitwear doesn't usually get a mention when it comes to power dressing, but though they might look nice and cosy, the striped pullovers favored by Bolivia's socialist president Evo Morales make a strong political statement. Morales is regularly seen greeting fellow leaders while wearing chompa traditional garments that many say shows Morales' affinity with his indigenous countrymen. Some have grumbled that the Bolivian leader should adopt a business suit as a sign of respect. This seems unlikely to happen, unless he gets given one by the same embarrassing elderly relative who knits sweaters for the rest of us.

Nicolas Sarkozy

One politician who does appear to heed the advice of Marilyn Monroe is Nicolas Sarkozy. The diminutive French president is seldom seen without a pair of elevator heel shoes that lift him closer to the height of his statuesque wife, Carla Bruni. It not known whether it was his stature or his penchant for fashionable sunglasses that once drew disparaging comments from political rival Dominique de Villepin. According to reports, Villepin once greeted Sarkozy, at the time wearing Ray-Ban aviators, with the salutation: "Ah, here comes Tom Cruise!"

Goodluck Jonathan

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, a man with a penchant for felt fedoras

When it comes to making a political statement with a hat, it's hard to beat Salva Kiir, the charismatic leader of newly-independent South Sudan, whose black stetson has its own Facebook page (but no friends). However, even Kiir must tip his Texas-sized headgear to Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, a man with a penchant for felt fedoras that sets him alongside icons of cool such as the Humphrey Bogart, Michael Jackson and, er Freddie Krueger.

Vladimir Putin

The Russian prime minister's sense of style is defined more by what he doesn't wear than what he does. Since 2007, Vladimir Putin has been photographed bare chested on several occasions, displaying a remarkably toned physique for a man now aged 58. Although possibly aimed at proving he is strong enough to keep his grip on power, these Rambo-style photoshoots might seem a bit a undignified for a senior statesman. It would, however, take a very brave person to tell a former KGB agent and judo expert he looks a little bit silly.

Fidel Castro

OK, so Fidel Castro is no longer president of Cuba, but he still wields considerable power even if only as a symbol of his country's communist revolution. Admittedly, the military fatigues, peaked cap and bushy beard that Castro wore for most of his political career aren't to every one's tastes (nor are the leisure suits he wears in retirement) but according to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, these are enough to make him a style icon. "His uniform is impeccable. His boots are polished, his beard is elegant," Chavez told supermodel Naomi Campbell (yes! Naomi Campbell!) in a 2008 interview for GQ magazine.

Moammar Gadhafi

History is unlikely to judge Libya's fallen leader favorably, but fashion may take a kinder view of the surreal sartorial legacy he leaves behind. Exhibiting a flamboyance that would've made Liberace look like an office clerk, Gadhafi regularly turned heads on the world stage with outfits that wouldn't have been out of place in Studio 54, Hogwarts or an upholstery workshop.

In April this year, the New York Times received a purported Gadhafi government request for help in organizing a Metropolitan Museum exhibition of the dictator's "four decades of superior dress sense." Perhaps, even while fighting his war, Gadhafi cared more about his wardrobe.