The Strongman in Plaid

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has started a fashion trend among loyalists.

@Menderesturel / Twitter

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, donned a blue plaid jacket after voting for himself in the country’s 2014 presidential election, people took notice. In Turkish politics, where starched formality and dark suits are the norm, the jacket stood out: It looked about a size too large, and its loud pattern sat awkwardly on his 6-foot frame.

Garish blue plaid jackets have since become a staple of Erdoğan’s wardrobe. He has worn them at rallies, and while criticizing U.S. policy at a convention of his ruling AK Party; earlier this year, he wore one while announcing his victory in a constitutional referendum that, according to many analysts, effectively converted his rule into a dictatorship.

As Erdoğan has consolidated power, mayors, government officials, and members of parliament have begun following not just his political lead but also his wardrobe cues. After the May 2016 resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu—himself an enthusiastic convert to blue plaid jackets—one journalist predicted that the next prime minister would be “someone with a plaid jacket in his closet.” (She was right.) That summer, a newspaper referred to the jackets as “the party’s official clothing.” Since then, photographs (like the one above, tweeted by the mayor of Antalya) of Erdoğan flanked by party functionaries wearing similar jackets have gone viral. Some have been paired with captions (“One state, one nation, one jacket”) playing off a campaign slogan.

Ankara’s pundits speculate that Erdoğan’s frumpy outfit is meant to show common Turks that, unlike other politicians, he is one of them. Whatever the jacket symbolizes, its popularity continues to spread. “I’ve seen people wearing this outfit to their civil service interviews,” wrote one commenter on a popular internet forum. “They pass.” A widely shared satiric article mocks the jacket’s appeal: “Broke up with your girlfriend? Feeling sad? The triumphant plaid jacket solves all problems.”

State involvement in fashion is nothing new in Turkey, says Soner Çağaptay, the author of The New Sultan, a book about Erdoğan’s rise. In 1829, Sultan Mahmud II ordered all public officials in the Ottoman empire to wear the fez, then seen as a symbol of modernity. Later, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founding dictator, promoted European-style attire.

Erdoğan is the first Turkish leader since Atatürk with enough personal authority to affect how people dress. Adrian Popan, a sociologist at Texas Tech who studies cults of personality, notes that in regimes where power is allocated based on closeness to a leader, people may compete for favor through performances—like wearing an ugly plaid jacket—that signal loyalty. (Political scientists sometimes refer to such regimes as “sultanistic.”)

But Turks aren’t necessarily stuck with blue plaid. In an unexpected wardrobe development, Erdoğan recently wore a gray plaid jacket. Pictures of it proliferated on social media, along with suggestions that AK Party members would now have to go shopping. One news site ran a photo of the gray jacket on its home page. “Here,” it declared, “is the new fashion.”