Some Thoughts on Late Icons of Despot Style


Despots come and despots go but how they apply the adage “dress for success” may not only support, but if not applied correctly, also undermine their reign in ways they may not imagine given the limited feedback loop that typically surrounds men wielding their brand of power.


For instance while Kim Jong, limiting his sprezzatura to variations on military kit and designer shades, presented a predictable and dependable no-nonsense air that displayed no visible chinks in his armor, his polar opposite, Muammar Gaddafi, in his exotic tribal mashups, coming at a time when historical frictions between tribal fractions were being exploited, could have subtly and irreparably caused his romantic appeal to an ancient lifestyle to tear at rifts in the psychic foundation of Libya as a nation state, provoking long-standing tribal resentments and hastening his demise.

despot-saddam-suitOf course, despots, like everyone, develop personal attachments to articles of clothing and accessories, but unlike most they can give full reign to their obsessions. For example Sadam Hussein (like Stalin) had hundreds of pairs of shoes. But what he really needed was an Italian tailor to give his sartorial presentation the kind of signifiers it needed to serve notice he was an international player on par with all the other ones in the Anglo-American orbit he thought he was a part of for a longest time.

But outside of military garb – the universal go-to vestments for rulers outside of “old” Europe and North America, he had the look of a functionary or a diplomat from a Bulgarian consulate circa NYC in the 80s. His tailoring never matched his ambitions so when the New World Order architects finally got around to publicly calling him a thug, it was too late for a good suit to save him. He had been in solitary confinement as prisoner of regional standards of power dressing for too long. He couldn’t view himself from the outside, like say a European head of state, or one of the usual characters acting as Western envoys to troubled capitals might do, and without a trusted media consultant never got the kinds of media friendly advice his counterparts in the West get.

Suits never really “suited” Mummer Gaddafi either. It’s simply a mis-match of garment genre and his particular personality. His aspirations were larger than life, mythic. But they seemed squished in a conventional suit. It’s less a tailoring issue than the fact that Gaddafi’s image projection to his people and the world was of an active – always doing something for the country or Africa – leader. Pictures suggest Gaddafi was more himself in military uniform, conveying order, command, and vision. One only has to look at the pictures of him in a uniform early in his reign: confidant and energetic. By the end, he was sporting the look of the patron of a nomadic tribe or mystic in the desert with rags and skins (though costly) on his back.


Because he was a self-made man, tribal birth surroundings to colonel to coup to ruler – and not subject to the conditioning that an heir like Jong received – there was no playbook for him to follow except for the verses he heard inside his head. It was obvious in his evolution of dress over the decades that Gaddafi felt an affinity for the archaic, but given the nature of the job and the public attention to its holder his changes in costume – especially in light of the challenges that developed to his rule – suggested something akin to the kinds of public melt downs Hollywood and music personalities are seen to have. Over the years his over the top combinations of materials, patterns and colors, his signature tent-dwelling desires and his female retinue of body guards read more like the lifestyle of a tribal potent so far from the usual stylistic conventions held by most of the worlds leaders that it was easy in the end to publicly isolate him and paint him with the colors of a mad man.

Unlike his African contemporary Kim Jong never gave the North Korean subjects anything to doubt with his attire: it was always military uniform and it’s variations on it. His stylistic allusions in this vein had an Eisenhower-in-his-headquarters-peering-over-maps-with-a-drink-the-night-before-a-battle-look, with the short jacket and high waisted pants usually in his signature khaki color. He and the country may have inhabited something of a time warp, but it was his time warp – a socialist state that appealed to images of an emperor.


Throughout years of Western antagonism he managed to keep the country intact and prevent the intrusions Iraq and Libya suffered. And while North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons (and probably stealth technology) helped, in the end it may have been the unchanging consistency of Kim Jong’s public persona that made as much a difference if not more in his country’s defense. Though he was known to spend upwards of $600,000 on Hennessey behind closed doors, in public – whether in work or in leisure – Kim Jong always portrayed the military leader.

And while he didn’t court his countryman’s love or good relations with other countries as ends in themselves, he managed to create the authentic air of the inscrutable Asian leader whom no one could quite get a handle on. Hell even his lone sponsors the Chinese had fears of what he was actually capable of, especially if backed into a corner. Simply put Kim Jong had cajones. And in the end it can be seen that his unwavering devotion he had to image of the military leader, Spartan, in command, there to protect the country, combined with actually producing weapons on the order of the scale he did, instilled the kind of fear and respect that he needed to continue.

True in death as in life, Kim Jong was buried in the uniform of a 4 star general. While “kudus” might not be the appropriate word, Jong certainly knew how to deftly play the game with the powers that opposed him.



Two years ago. Late at night in a hotel bar in midtown where various dignitaries are staying for the annual UN gathering. Two figures at a table having a nightcap.

Silvio Berlusoni dressed immaculately in a dark navy suit next to Muammar Gaddafi in an ill-fitting medium gray suit grimacing as he looks down at it saying:

“I can’t stand this, I feel like a fool.”


“You made an effort; that’s the important thing. Look, you go see my guy in Milan and he’ll fix everything.

Leaning towards Gaddafi, lowering his voice he adds:

“Now listen to me Mummer, bunga bunga… good. But (shaking his head) this Gold Dinar thing and the Pan African Union…”

Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.



  1. do we mean david gutless cameron as well cos what he did in libya was the stuff of despots

  2. I think it’s difficult to tell how these men really were just based on their state of dress, though the style certainly gives a clue as to what image they wanted to project.
    I’m going to disregard the ignorant statement on desert dressing (“rags and skins”). As if an oxxford 3-piece would help in that environment. Qaddafi was just dressing for the region.

    A better take on the dressing of dictators, in my opinion. And he also writes for this site on occassion:

  3. A. Brown says:

    Great Article, what is the source of the Berlusconi/Gaddafi exchange? Is it real or fictional.


  4. Before uploading an article please ensure that you get your facts straight. North Korea is not in possession of a nuclear weapon. Whilst they may have conducted intermediate range ballistic missile flight tests (taepo dong I and II), both of which failed, they lack the necessary infrastructure to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Furthermore, to suggest that North Korea may have stealth technology highlights the fact that you have no actual knowledge of nuclear deterrence. I suggest that in the future you only discuss issues once you are in possession of all the facts. Before posting a reply back, please note that I have a Ph.D. on this subject.

  5. @Dr Phil

    I think an aim of this article is more to entertain than to inform. It’s written in a semi-serious tone, and it’s about dress and clothes posted on a fashion blog. Jeez.

    And plus we all hear in the news all the time that they indeed possess nuclear weapons. So unless one’s a CIA member, how could one know for certain without misspending the best year’s of life in pursuing Ph.D. on such a subject.

  6. Eamon, many thanks for the kudos; I rather enjoyed writing that article. I did enjoy this one, nevertheless – it has a certain style