When Hamid Karzai made his first appearance at the United Nations as Afghanistan's president in 2002, he seemed to impress New York's fashionistas as much as he did his fellow world leaders. "The most chic man in the world," declared designer Tom Ford after Karzai took to the U.N. podium dressed in his astrakhan fur hat and traditional silk salwar kameez.
No one would mistake the U.N.'s East Side digs for SoHo, of course, but the annual General Assembly session is always a reminder that a sense of the sartorial is an essential diplomatic skill: Clothing worn by dignitaries can be used to signal prestige to one's competitors, or underscore authenticity to one's own public. This year's get-together -- sandwiched as it was between the New York and Milan international fashion shows -- invited special scrutiny of world leaders' choices of formal wear.
A distinct emphasis on national heritage seemed to be the running theme. The Burmese foreign minister, Nyan Win, turned out in a pink ghaung paung -- a traditional national turban -- whereas in previous years he dressed in sensible business suits. Nigeria's newly minted president, Goodluck Jonathan, turned out in a black tribal shirt suit and a wide-brimmed black hat from his native Niger Delta region. Further examples abounded in the halls of the United Nations. The fashion statements weren't coordinated, but, in many instances, they did appear to be a nod to upcoming national elections.
For other leaders from the developing world, fashion choices bore a more aggressive intent. Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi's flowing Bedouin robes, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tie-less shirts, are intended to be symbols of defiance against would-be imperialists. Sudanese dignitaries, including former envoys Elfatih Erwa and Abdalhaleem Mohamad, donned billowing white robes with wrapped white turbans as debates over U.N. sanctions against their country heated up in the Security Council.
Of course, Western powers have their own traditional national costumes, but they are unlikely to make a debut at the United Nations. If German chancellors own lederhosen, they don't bring them to New York. Nor would a U.S. president sport a cowboy hat or farmer's overalls at the U.N. podium. Britain's former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who hails from Scotland, reserved his kilt for private occasions, while donning Savile Row at the General Assembly. "I would never wear something called Irish national dress," Mary Robinson, the former Irish president, told Foreign Policy. "The gear that the West is wearing is basically now Western national dress."
Here's a photo exhibit of some of the most daring fashion statements at this year's U.N. General Assembly, and what they might mean.
(Above: Karzai at the 2008 General Assembly. Photographs courtesy of the United Nations.)