Scruffy Boris Johnson’s ‘man of the people’ look is part of a long British tradition

It’s often suggested that UK prime minister Boris Johnson uses his distinctive hair as a political device. His trademark untameable mane disarms critics and belies his powerful position. A quick ruffle when the cameras are on enables Johnson to assume the role of a casual “man of the people”, especially when the look is completed with a rumpled suit and a barely-tucked-in shirt.

His style sets him apart from other politicians, most of whom make great efforts to look perfectly groomed for the TV cameras. That’s useful for a man who strives to be popular among the public and might even be described as a populist. There is a school of political thought that focuses on the idea of relating to “the people” and questioning the conventionally well-dressed “elite”, so why not use your whole look to express that?

This is a technique that dates back to the 18th century when dandyish care in dress, intended to evoke cosmopolitan sophistication, was often derided as being elitist and un-British. Opposition to these historical fashion victims helps us to understand Boris the scruff.

Style your hair, lose your head

In the years before and after the French Revolution in the late 18th century, Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was a leading figure in British progressive politics who was exceptional for his positive response to the events in France and a pioneering advocate of the abolition of slavery. He was widely satirised as a bloated and scruffy self-proclaimed “voice of the people”.

Fox had not always looked like this. In his youth, he had shown a taste for Parisian high fashion. When he was 14, his wealthy father arranged for him to travel there to learn the arts of gambling and sleeping with courtesans. He was to be mocked back home for wearing red high-heeled shoes, gorgeous suits, hair tinted with blue powder and for having developed the trace of a French accent.

In his early years in politics he was associated with a group of dandies who were referred to as macaronis because they ate Italian pasta in preference to British beef. At the time this was widely regarded in England as unpatriotic and dangerous to health.

The macaronis combined such eccentricities with tastes for French fashion, gambling and drinking. They were initially laughed at for being effeminate and unsuccessful with the ladies since they were supposedly only obsessed with their own appearance. But the macaronis became associated with sexual perversion as a result of a series of sodomy scandals, especially one concerning a socialite and army officer Robert Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1772.

Aspiring politicians such as Fox took the hint. His style quickly transformed from that of a fashionista to that of someone who seemed to relish freedom from the tyranny of style. By the time of the revolution fashions were becoming much less elaborate but Fox went much further in his developing disregard not only for style but also of basic neatness.

When, because of his radical policies he was accused of being in league with Britain’s revolutionary opponents, he defended himself by denouncing his rivals as elitist and stressing his fellow feeling with ordinary Britons.

Blond ambition

Fox lead the Whig party in opposition to the Tories, so he was in the opposing political camp to Boris Johnson’s modern day Conservatives. But his behaviour, and the attention he received made him one of the most frequently caricatured and parodied politicians of this age – just like Johnson. And his story sheds light on Johnson’s artfully constructed bad hair days.

Photographs from Johnson’s early years evoke dandyism, notably one taken at the Bullingdon Club during his years as a student at the University of Oxford. He sits in front of a row of lounging youths all dressed in that socially elite club’s costume of evening dress.

But as Johnson’s political career developed, he was increasingly noted not only for dressing badly but for allegedly doing so with care and deliberation. Reports abound of Johnson intentionally messing his hair up before television appearances. What’s the point? Has he just become a slob, or has he deliberately cultivated the appearance of being one?

He is a posh Englishman with an elite education and a circle of super-rich friends. But he also had the ambition to win over swathes of voters from Labour. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is the perfect name for a foppish dandy, so he has boosted his appeal by ditching the elite look and rebranding himself as “Boris”, the scruffily loveable English libertarian. He stands with you as your hair stubbornly refuses to style itself like the style gurus recommend.

His messy style is a calculated performance. He is a kind of “anti-dandy”, like Fox before him. Johnson’s signature scruffy style conceals privilege by pretending to thumb its nose at it.

Dominic Janes is affiliated with (a member of) the Liberal Democrats and the University and College Union. In Spring 2019 he was a Humfrey Wanley Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, working on a project on dandyism in Britain.