His rule over Libya may have been constant for nearly 40 years but Colonel Gaddafi’s wardrobe has evolved – from military uniform to Arabian hybrid.
Oddly, the pages of The Green Book – the mercifully brief tract in which Colonel Gaddafi expounds his Third Universal Theory of government, along with digressions about sport, language and art – contain nothing on the subject of clothes. Deportment is clearly important to the indefatigable Libyan autocrat. Where other secular Arab rulers favour sensible suits, Gaddafi’s rig-ups grow increasingly exuberant. His current preference for irridescent robes, pillbox hats and sunglasses is a long march from the military fatigues he wore when he seized power in 1969. Our favourite to date was a somewhat Marimekko-inspired safari ensemble with lurid prints of the African continent scattered from epaul to hip pockets.
“He hasn’t worn uniform for a long time,” says Professor Tony Allan of King’s College London, a frequent visitor to Libya. “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s in posters around the place he was often dressed in military uniform.”
Colonel Gaddafi may be – to put it charitably – eccentric, but he isn’t foolish. Dictators confront a curious paradox: though they are not obliged to listen to dissent, they must nevertheless respect the moods of their subject populations more carefully than their elected peers. Even indoors Gaddafi often hides behind sunglasses and famously receives visitors in a tent. “He obviously feels,” says Allan, “that playing on that way of life touches something in the people of Libya and he wants to express the legitimacy that comes from being from the desert.”
Gaddafi’s robes, many of them made by Tripoli designer Rabia Ben Barka, represent a singular interpretation of traditional Arab dress. It is arguable that nobody else could get away with it.
“He was 27 when he took power,” says Allan. “He came from the desert and his only claim to fame was that he was a captain. By the time he was 30 he found he could confront the international oil companies and the great powers and steer the world. Ever since, he has tended to assume that he could take extravagant initiatives – what is there to lose?”
1. Hat – The pill-box titfer, though a favourite of Gaddafi’s, is tainted by associations with African tyrants Mobutu Sese Seko and Idi Amin. 2. Sunglasses – A distinguishing affectation of the Colonel. In March 2008, Gaddafi presented US Congressman John Boehner with a pair of shades. “They don’t fit,” said Boehner.
3. Beard – The chin-fluff is a recent addition. It may be a subliminal nod to Islam – with which, like all secular Arab dictators, Gaddafi has an uneasy relationship – or it may be the standard mid-life-crisis goatee.
4. Robe – Gaddafi’s favoured designer, Rabia Ben Barka, makes traditional and western clothes in her studio – she may well have been responsible for the white suit adorned with a black brooch in the shape of Africa, in which Gaddafi met President Nicolas Sarkozy in July 2007.
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