One of the most accurate sayings is that “the habit does not make the monk”. Nothing ensures that a person can be defined in this or that sense by the way he or she dresses. In fact, in recent decades, many priests have hidden beneath their attire the most serious perversions against the morals they preach. The outstanding Netflix TV series about the British monarchy raised the world’s consciousness that the lavishness of kings, princes and princesses conceals the most horrendous crimes of politics and of the castes who think they are privileged and entitled to mock the candour of the people.
The manner of dress, however, may well characterise the young and the old, differentiate the poor from the rich, the women from the men. Although in the latter case, the differences are now often not very convincing: even less so when the human species usually manifests itself in these and other genders or sexual conditions.
Humanity is very rich and diverse in terms of habits and costumes. The most prominent creators, intellectuals and artists generally do not take on the habits of ordinary people, although sometimes the pressure of protocol forces Nobel prize winners, for example, to dress “black tie”, to put on attire they will never wear again in their lives. It is frankly ridiculous to watch the Indians of Mexico and other countries drape themselves in the costumes and dress of the upper classes, as can be seen in their customary marriages and christenings, which have become a tourist rather than a religious attraction.
It is already clear that the pomp of the popes has not been restricted by the Argentinean pontiff, who no longer wears shoes as splendidly as his predecessor, but continues to dress in glitter and colour in accordance with the liturgical seasons of the Church. All this despite the fact that priests have practically hung up their cassocks, done away with their tonsure and can now pass unnoticed.
It is absurd that European customs in terms of fashion and dress are still so deeply rooted in our continent. Especially, there are very few heads of state without a jacket and tie, although in a few summit meetings they adopt the use of guayaberas and other more autochthonous garments. Evo Morales, in this sense, was a revolutionary in the way he dressed, assuming his social and cultural condition. Now, it is President Boric who has decided to remove the tie from his high office, although otherwise he continues to wear a jacket and other garments that do little to suit his physical build. Likewise, the women who make up his cabinet are breaking all the traditional moulds in terms of colour, necklines and dress. Whatever the occasion, we see them in trousers, short and long dresses, although hats and jewellery are no longer in evidence. Their fiery red lips seem to be gaining ground among women ministers, possibly more for their convictions than for other causes.
Africa and Asia are where the huge differences in the way their authorities and peoples look can best be seen. There we have everything, even though some leaders seem happy to wear European suits and coats, especially among those who are the most abject to the First World, to their former colonisers. But in general, it is very entertaining to attend ceremonies, banquets and other events where so much diversity is displayed and even in the culinary field, different ways of tasting and celebrating are imposed.
I remember in Algeria we attended several events where alcohol was never present and the toasts tasted like lemonade. However, visitors from the West were able to have drinks and even get drunk inside the Hilton Hotel as, no doubt, inside Western embassies.
Hair tends to differ more between conservatives and rebels, although baldness and shaved hair are now becoming the norm among men, just as blond hair is being adopted even by African-American women, as well as footballers. Just as tattoos can now be seen on the arms and legs of many authorities, crossing the entire social scale of their peoples. Here in Chile, an official leader privately regrets having tattooed even her most visible parts, when she never thought she could climb so high in power. We wonder if by any chance Queen Elizabeth herself, whose life spans so many generations, does not have some of these seemingly indelible marks on her ankle or calf.
I know people who acidly criticise our President for having ditched his tie, but at the same time take great pleasure in wearing the presidential sash and even the O’Higgins pioche, symbols of a bygone era that speak more of the legitimacy than the authority of our rulers. In this respect, it is said that leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, Fidel Castro and so many others were able to dress in any way, even outlandishly, without ever losing their dignity.
I remember that, in Allende’s time, there were those who were scandalised by the dress of some of his ministers of state and accused them of disrespecting the President. With this attitude, they argued, they would later encourage the insubordination of those uniformed men who were always so overloaded with colours and epaulettes. Without them, they would quickly pass for ordinary people.
I remember a dear and elegant relative of mine attending a meeting in La Moneda with Jorge Alessandri, suffering the unpleasant experience of being reprimanded by the President when he turned up at the Palace in a light grey suit. He warned him that one could only arrive before the Head of State in a black or blue suit, so he ordered him to return home to change his suit. At the Catholic University of Chile, we do not know whether law students still attend classes wearing ties, whether they still have to wear them when they take their professional oath before the Supreme Court, or in their pleadings before the high courts.
It was always curious that Allende was called a “pije” because of his elegant dress both in the Senate and later in La Moneda. Even his sports and weekend clothes were distinguished by their quality and good taste. What cannot be doubted, however, is that politically he was a true revolutionary, a true man of the left. Indeed, his refined tastes never challenged his avant-garde ideas, as well as his proven and heroic willingness to lose his life to defend the rule of law. To a willowy student leader who, in those years, told him that he was only a “reformist”, the late president said that he was already a revolutionary when the person who was accusing him had not yet learned to “blow his nose”.
Those were times when left-wing politicians, no matter how they dressed, were fighting to nationalise copper and its main deposits, as well as to bring about a drastic agrarian reform. The avant-garde ideas also carried out profound initiatives in favour of a huge change in public health, the construction of popular housing, universal access to education, among many other actions for social justice and equality. All in stark contrast to what we have today: a self-styled “new left” surrendered to international markets and bent on seducing foreign investment.