Saturday, June 02, 2007

Suits you, sir! When in Sierra Leone (or Vietnam, or India, or Indonesia, or Tuva...)

The Prime Minister cut an uncomfortable figure this week when he donned a colourful ceremonial robe on his visit to the African country. But he is not the first VIP to enter into the spirit of a state visit. By Jerome Taylor and Kate Thomas

Tony Blair; Sierra Leone, 2007

Whatever the verdict of the wider world on Tony Blair's legacy, to the people of Mahera village in Sierra Leone he is a hero. His decision to send UK troops to stop rebels destroying the country saved Mahera which lay on the front line. This week the village bestowed upon Mr Blair the title of paramount chief. Wearing a traditional brown robe draped over his immaculately pressed suit, Mr Blair looked somewhat uncomfortable as the village head said the Prime Minister had earned the honour by defending their settlement against aggressors. "It's wonderful to be with you here today in Sierra Leone and it's a particular honour to be made an honorary paramount chief," Mr Blair responded. "Thank you very much indeed."

George Bush and Vladimir Putin; Vietnam, 2006

When President Bush flew to the 2006 Apec summit in Hanoi, he was almost certainly not expecting to be ordered to change into a silky blue dress. The male version of the Ao Dai - the Vietnamese national dress with a revealing slit along the leg - is rarely seen on the streets of Hanoi these days, which may explain why George Bush and Vladimir Putin look so uncomfortable in their matching paintbox-blue versions. They may not have agreed on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but they were united in embarrassment. Fans of Mr Bush's costume dramas await September's Apec summit in Australia to see what the cowboy pulls out of the dressing-up box. Ugg boots and cork hats all round, then.

Boris Yeltsin; The Republic of Tuva, 1994

As Russia's first capitalist leader for more than 70 years, Boris Yeltsin was rarely seen wearing anything but a well-cut suit. But when you want to win over the people of the remote Republic of Tuva, it helps to don the local garb and become proficient at the two most respected skills, horse riding and throat singing. Although the isolated region of Tuva remains nominally a part of Russia it is a virtual world away from Moscow and following the collapse of the Soviet Union tensions soon flared between locals and ethnic Russians. Yeltsin made a number of visits there throughout his presidency in order to persuade the people of Tuva to remain within the Russian republic and wearing local dress was often a good way to win over non-ethnic Russians. The region is predominantly Buddhist and most inhabitants follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

Bill Clinton; Indonesia, 1994

When Bill Clinton insisted his guests wear classic US bomber jackets at the 1993 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) meeting in Seattle, he had no way of knowing what he had started. Ever since, the arguable highlight of Apec has been the tradition of donning the host's national costume. It was one thing to prowl Seattle coffee shops in a bomber jacket; another to squeeze into an ill-fitting brown batik shirt at the 1994 gathering in Bogor, Indonesia. Since then, leaders at Apec summits have donned jackets fashioned from pineapple skin in the Philippines and durumagis in South Korea. But the prize for the biggest sartorial mistake in Apec's history must go to George Bush, who in 2004 wore a poncho to match the colour of his cheeks in Santiago.

Prince Charles; South Africa, 1997

People in the Zulu village of Dukuduku were delighted to see Prince Charles wield their traditional spear and shield so enthusiastically during a trip to South Africa in 1997. There he met another member of royalty, a Zulu chief known as Prince Phillip who, when not meeting international dignitaries, drove a taxi. Accompanying Charles was a young Prince Harry. On his return Prince Charles quipped: "We have collected so many Zulu shields, spears and sticks that we may easily now be able to start a small Zulu war of our own."

Jack Straw; India, 2005

As a politician with a large Asian constituency and as foreign secretary, Jack Straw made six visits to India in as little as four years. During this particular trip to Sikhism's holiest shrine, Amritsar's Golden Temple, in 2005, Mr Straw showed just how much of an old India hand he had become, adapting easily to the local customs and mucking in when asked to. Those entering any Sikh temple have to cover their heads and remove their shoes but the foreign secretary had removed his shoes and placed a handkerchief on his head without even having to be asked. All Sikh temples, known as gurudwaras, have a kitchen where food is prepared for pilgrims and the needy. After helping the temple kitchen staff roll chapatis and rotis, Mr Straw then tucked into a meal with senior leaders from the Sikh community.

Dennis Thatcher; India, 1981

The picture may show Dennis Thatcher looking more than happy to don local headgear during a visit to Delhi in 1981 but, according to some, the Iron Lady's husband was in fact less than amused. Struggling to keep the giant pink turban on his head, Mr Thatcher was caught muttering under his breath: "These blighters are trying to make me look like a bloody fool." Not that Mr Thatcher's further trips to India improved his attitude to the sub-continent. During a Commonwealth summit in Goa, an electrical blackout caught him out halfway through shaving with an electric razor. In a typically subtle reaction he was reportedly heard roaring: "The buggeration factor is high and growing in this part of the world!"

The Queen; New Zealand, 1995

Her sartorial mistakes have been relatively few and far between, but the exception was in 1995, when Her Majesty visited a Maori woodcarving school in Rotorua while on an official visit in New Zealand. As the Queen left, dressed in a korowai shawl fashioned from bird feathers, she was met by a crowd of 60 representatives from the Maori community, who proceeded to suggest she return to England and remove herself from the New Zealand governmental process. The Queen, a figure of decorum, simply wrapped the shawl more tightly around her shoulders and smiled meekly. Unsurprisingly, she did not join in when the group began to perform a haka and the shawl was never been seen since.

Link to Suits you, sir! When in Sierra Leone (or Vietnam, or India, or Indonesia, or Tuva...) - Independent Online Edition > World Politics