His opponents call him “the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” suggesting that Moammar Gadhafi—the man who has ruled Libya since 1969, when he overthrew the king in a military coup—is able to hide a savage core behind a softer, seemingly benign facade. In truth, though, the self-proclaimed colonel’s appearance has been anything but sheeplike, becoming increasingly ostentatious and at times outright bizarre.
He has “long been a flamboyant dresser,” explains Ronald Bruce St. John, author of Libya: From Colony to Independence. But his “operetta-like uniforms have become more outlandish each year.” At last week’s UN summit, Gadhafi stood out in a sea of black suits, issuing a bizarre string of demands—including calls to reinvestigate the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy—while sporting a head-to-toe chocolate-coloured ensemble, with matching cape and black felt cap. For Gadhafi, who has been dubbed “the most unabashed dresser on the world stage” by Vanity Fair and a man who “has brought colour and his own eccentric panache to the drab circuit of international summits and conferences,” the outfit was almost demure.
Gadhafi’s clothing is said to blend the old world and the new. That kind of fusion is not uncommon in Libya, where men often don Western-style dress with uniquely North African garnishes, like colourful embroidery. But in the case of “Brother Leader”—as he is known at home—that aesthetic is often stretched to the extreme. At this year’s G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, Gadhafi, who was there as the current president of the African Union, was relatively subdued, pairing a white suit with an Arabic bisht, a traditional men’s cloak. But during a 2007 trip to France, he made waves with a leather bomber jacket and a fur trapper’s hat. And when meeting with Obama over the summer, he combined a jarring array of patterned textiles, including a pinkish-red floral brocade. At the beach, he has been known to favour silky blouses with pictures of Africa.
This is all a far cry from Gadhafi circa the 1969 coup, when the then-27-year-old captain proclaimed Libya a socialist state and promoted himself to colonel. At the time, the new leader stuck to traditional army garb, adorned only with a few military medals. Those days are long gone, although the military medal collection—which seems to have grown considerably—still makes the odd appearance.
Gadhafi’s style seems to be a far cry from the stylistic norms of Libyan life. The Lonely Planet guide to Libya advises adherents of “responsible tourism” to be “sensitive to local culture” by sticking to a “modest” dress which “avoid[s] ostentatious displays.” Gadhafi’s clothing, while alluding to ancient Libyan tradition, is in fact anything but traditional.
So what message is the colonel trying to send, through all those bedecked kufis and flashy bishts? In a 2007 article on his style, the New York Times posited that Gadhafi’s outfits “may actually make a subtle point”: that they are, “in fashion terms, what some people would like to see Libya become, a blending of the traditional and modern.” “Nonsense,” says St. John: Gadhafi’s taste simply reflects his “self-styled role as king of kings”; as his self-importance grows, so does his ornate wardrobe.