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From tie-dye to donkey jackets … why our politicians must be themselves

Like teenage girls who spend too much time together, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have started dressing alike. Their cross-party campaign uniform is determinedly unremarkable. For “smart casual” photo opportunities it’s navy jumpers and light blue shirts with the top buttons undone. Otherwise it’s navy suits and white shirts with ties in a single block colour. It doesn’t help that they are all white men in their 40s with eerily similar haircuts. Visually, at least, the sceptics are right: they are blending into one.

But what about the plucky outsiders shaking up the political system during this, the most unpredictable British election in decades? Sadly, this week, even the Greens advised volunteers to adopt a “mainstream appearance” on the doorstep. Or, as the Daily Mail interpreted the Hayes and Harlington candidate Alick Munro’s memo: “Don’t dress like a hippy.”

Presumably, this was a well-meaning attempt to prevent culture clash between the average suburban house owner and the wilder instincts of some green party activists, who may be more familiar with knitted beanies and tie-dye than most of Cameron’s disciples. But if political homogeneity is turning voters off, shouldn’t the Greens be celebrating their individuality?

In Germany, Green politicians have proudly worn non-traditional clothes. When former foreign minister Joschka Fischer was sworn in he wore jeans, a tweed jacket and a pair of Nikes. But that was 1985 – a less stage-managed time. In Britain, too, we must look to the past to find idiosyncratic dressers. To Mo Mowlam, who appeared to have thrown her clothes on while hurrying to do something more important, and looked all the more convincing for it. To Barbara Castle, who dressed impeccably but always looked formidably like herself. To Margaret Thatcher’s arsenal of hard-edged handbags or Tony Benn’s cardigans and pipes. Dennis Skinner still stands out – burgundy shirts paired with tomato red ties – but there are fewer such characters around.

‘For Nicola Sturgeon, power suits in red, pink, chartreuse.’ Photograph: Danny Lawson/Press Association

David Cameron, on the other hand, caused media meltdown when he changed his parting. George Osborne has gone for a Caesar crop. These are subtle details, but one imagines an army of spads overseeing every tonsorial millimetre. Ed Miliband has been carefully styled for this election, too: his suits fit perfectly, his ties are straight. Obviously, as women, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett don’t exactly echo the three Brooks Brothers, but they have not veered too far. For Bennett, it’s necklaces and mauve jackets. For Sturgeon, power suits in red, pink, chartreuse – a hard-edged overwhelming “pow!” of colour that is clearly a feminised version of male power clothes.

‘Theresa May’s leopard print kitten heels are hardly counter-cultural but at least they do not appear to have been chosen by committee.’ Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Perhaps the next election will be a little less bland, given that most of Cameron’s successors do not quite fit his mould. Theresa May so loves fashion that a subscription to Vogue was her Desert Island Discs luxury. Her leopard-print kitten heels are hardly counter-cultural, but at least they do not appear to have been chosen by committee. Boris Johnson also uses his crumpled image with aplomb, his Labrador-like hair adding to a sense of uncontrived exuberance that seems to allow him to bound from disaster to disaster unscathed.

Of the current leaders, only Nigel Farage stands out. His pinstripe suits and patterned ties are a visual illustration of the outsider role he attempts to play – far from the political elite and from the realms of good taste. This week, his velvet-collared covert coat became the election’s first proper sartorial talking point when reality TV star Joey Essex admired it during their inevitable meeting at a Grimsby photo-call. He may look like a 1950s car salesman midway through a heavy lunch, but he looks like himself.

Farage’s success suggests that the British public is thirsting for authenticity – and sartorial signals can be as powerful as soundbites. But there’s a contradiction here. We want politicians to be human and fallible, but we revel in their tiniest mistakes. The rightwing press has always used Labour politicians’ appearances to vilify them, from Michael Foot’s “donkey jacket” to the Sun’s bald Neil Kinnock lightbulb moment. Miliband is roasted for the slightest slur of speech – the mind boggles as to what would happen if he started wearing weird clothes. The Tories don’t have it easy, either. The tiniest indication of personality or eccentricity can become a source of derision. During the budget announcement, Twitter was obsessed with George Osborne’s mankles.

But please, Greens, do not join the political establishment in their navy blue cocoon. Wave the flag for eccentricity; show us why you are different. In fact, why not follow that most boring, but most effective, piece of fashion advice? Ignore everyone else and dress like yourselves. Because if Britain’s political parties are to convince us they are not all the same, we need some stronger visual clues.

The subheading on this article was amended on 9 April 2015. It originally said, in opposition to the article itself, that Greens were being told to look like hippies. This has now been corrected.

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