Saif al-Islam Qaddafi's Fashionable Deception

The dictator's son apparently fooled us all with his blindingly well-tailored suits

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The cliché: Muammar Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was once the western media's greatest hope for reform in Libya. He had a western education, perfect English, and talked a lot about reform. So in March, when he came out full-force in support of his father and even implied sympathy with Islamists, Westerners were noticeably disappointed in him. In the wake of this betrayal, Judith Miller focused on something more than his education or his ideological shift. She also noted the deception of his keen sartorial sensibility. "He was so smooth in his Brioni suits and cashmere zip-up sweaters," reads her bitter lede in The Daily Beast. This week as Qaddafi's compound falls, Saif once again made headlines. First, outlets reported his arrest, and then he released a video announcing the reports were false. Predictably, with the renewed attention come renewed feelings of betrayal... but also renewed remarks on his good fashion sense. "The more important question is why so many Westerners were ready to fall for Seif. He was intelligent, often surprising, wore well-cut suits and chewed his food with his mouth shut," says Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. The New Yorker's Andrew Solomon writes, "Westerners often mistook his elegant words and his well-cut suits for an adherence to democratic values." One is left wondering what Westerners would have thought if he'd been traipsing about in an oversize suit he bought at Sear's.

Where it's from: To demonstrate just what kind of coverage Saif received, Stephens and Solomon return to the source material. Stephens points to a "puff piece" in The New York Times to demonstrate the kind of blinders the Western media wore when covering Saif. But the Times piece doesn't mention Qaddafi's fashion. Solomon links to his own 2006 profile of the Western son but that piece doesn't make mention of the suits either. So if Saif's threads were dazzling those reporters before the revolution, they were doing so subconsciously. It seems the disillusionment with his wardrobe, at least among these prominent news outlets, truly began only with the likes of Judith Miller in March.

Why it's catching on: In the video Saif released denying reports that he had been arrested, he was wearing a T-shirt and looking less well-dressed than usual. One can guess why the embattled Saif might opt for casual wear these days, but perhaps the change in clothes that accompanied the change in attitude made the deceit of those tailored suits more apparent to journalists. Only in the absent of the suit did we realize its hypnotic powers!
Additionally, a suit makes for a neat metaphor when one is pointing out that someone is only "wearing" an identity. Solomon takes advantage of the language in today's post:

His behavior since the rebellion began in February has been appalling, and his most recent emergence as a supposed Islamist shows how mindlessly he dons personalities and value systems and then shrugs them off again. ... Suddenly, the good tailoring doesn’t seem to connote so much honor. It was just another mechanism of deception, and not a very convincing one at that.

Why else? Long before Saif took it on, the Western suit had been a symbol of Western sympathy. It evokes the likes of Gandhi who adopted the suit while studying in Britain. (Saif has a degree from the London School of Economics.) As anyone who has seen a later picture of him knows, Gandhi radically changed his wardrobe as he increasingly opposed British imperialism in India. Gandhi knew the powerful symbolism an outfit can wield.  So journalists are onto something when they note the sway Saif's GQ style had in convincing people of his sympathy with Western ideas.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.