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Germany's new government: A new style

December 5, 2021

No three-piece suits, no dress shoes, no ties. Instead, Germany's new leaders appear in sneakers and unbuttoned shirts. A change in style that also symbolizes a new attitude.

Volker Wissing, Annalena Baerbock, Christian Lindner, Robert Habeck (left to right)
The selfie posted by the four negotiators from the prospective coalition partners was seen as a statement in many waysImage: Instagram/@volkerwissing/via Reuters

In 1980 a young member of parliament was put in his place. "When we elect the chancellor tomorrow, I expect you to dress properly and wear a tie," Parliament Vice President Annemarie Renger told the young Gerhard Schröder. Almost two decades later Schröder himself was to become chancellor — and became notorious for his expensive and elegant suits and coats.

During his election campaign,Olaf Scholz was often asked whether he'd start wearing a tie if he were to become chancellor. His response was always noncommittal: "I'll be wearing a tie most of the time — but not always," he said.

The prospective head of government has sometimes displayed a penchant for casual attire. When he arrived in Washington this year, Finance Minister Scholz walked down the gangway of the government jet dressed in a T-shirt and sand-colored slacks.

Olaf Scholz in a black t-shirt
Vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz chose a casual outfit for a meeting with Journalists in Washington this yearImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

But usually Scholz's choice of clothes is conservative: A dark blue suit, the occasional subtle tie. Psychologist Jens Lönnecker describes Scholz as an "opportunist" when it comes to his clothes. "When he was young and a member of the left-wing SPD youth organization, he had long hair, as a senior politician his clothes were conservative, now it is en vogue to do away with the tie, so that's what he does," said Lönneker, CEO of the marketing and media agency rheingold-salon.

Like a pop band

During the weeks of negotiations to hammer out a coalition agreement, Christian Lindner, head of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), showed up in white sneakers. A selfie posted by FDP and Green party negotiators to mark the promising beginning of their preliminary talks showed the men in white shirts, tie-less and unbuttoned at the top, and the only woman, Annalena Baerbock, in a dark T-shirt.

"The leaders of the parties that won this year's election want to demonstrate that they stand for change, for a new beginning, which they personify with their own distinctive style," historian Claudia Gatzka remarked in an interview with the German press agency DPA.

"They look like members of an indie band who are making their way from the plane to their gig with their fans," was Gatzka's comment on a photo showing the negotiators making their way to the coalition talks.

Gerhard Schröder (l) and Joschka Fischer posing with their coalition agreement on stage
Gerhard Schröder (l) and Joschka Fischer donned their expensive suits at the celebration of their coalition agreement in 1998Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Overly casual, or simply mainstream?

In an interview with Spiegel magazine, fashion designer Wolfgang Joop voiced scathing criticism of the new dress code. "Their clothes signal a degree of helplessness before they even take office," he said of Olaf Scholz and his designated Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck. The latter should at least occasionally wear a tie, Joop suggested: "If someone dresses negligently, that reflects his way of thinking."

Bernhard Roetzel, the author of several books on style, is also an advocate of conservative attire. But he told DW that he sees some leeway.

"If you compare them with Richard von Weizsäcker [German president from 1984 to 1994, eds.] you will find that Olaf Scholz, Christian Lindner, and Robert Habeck's clothes are slightly inappropriate. But then, times have changed," said Roetzel. Today's "business look" is decidedly less formal, he explained, and the three new political leaders' appearance fits in here as absolutely "normal."

Bearded Green Party members in parliament, black and white photo
The first Green Party members of the Bundestag in 1983 were demonstratively anti-establishmentImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Baerbock and high heels

The male politicians' trademark white shirts may also be seen as a classic business look that symbolizes managerial competence and experience, muses psychologist Lönnecker. He even sees it as a message on ethics, as symbolizing a clean slate — politicians who have an unstained "weisse Weste" (white vest) and nothing to hide.

Fashion expert Roetzel agrees that such symbolism may be well-intended. "But a white shirt doesn't look good on everyone. It is so formal that it doesn't seem to fit with the politicians' extremely casual demeanor," he said, suggesting that light blue may be the better choice — and also look better on TV.

What about Green party co-chair and designated Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock? The most prominent female negotiator's choice of clothes is "fashionable but also mainstream," says Lönneker.

"Her outfits are not necessarily the latest fashion trend," finds Roetzel. Her choice of color, shape, and fit are a bit hit and miss, he says "Strong colors or black and white patterns suit her, but pastel colors not so much." The fashion expert is also critical of Annalena Baerbock's trademark high heels. "They make her seem behind the times, rather than stylish," he finds.

Annalena Baerbock in white jeans and a leather jacket and high heels on a stage during the election campaign
Annalena Baerbock wears high heels with every outfitImage: K. Schmitt/Fotostand/picture alliance

The metamorphosis of Joschka Fischer

The Green party co-leader's choice in shoes is a far cry from her party's style in the 1980s. When the Greens first managed to get into the Bundestag, knitted sweaters and Birkenstock sandals were their outfit of choice.

Joschka Fischer, one of the most famous of all Green party politicians, famously wore sneakers to his swearing-in ceremony when he became Environment Minister in the state government of Hesse in 1985. By the time he became German Foreign Minister in 1998, three-piece suits had become his outfit of choice.

"Of course the style of clothes develops throughout life, along with a person's personality", Jens Lönneker said. "He went from being a stone-throwing leftist protester to the Foreign Minister. That was then also reflected in a statesmanlike outfit."

Heiko Maas in a taylor-made suit
A magazine voted outgoing Foreign Minister Heiko Maas the best-dressed man in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Inconspicuousness as a trademark

"Formal casualness" has become the accepted style for politicians from all political parties, says Lönneker. Roetzel reluctantly agrees: "This trend reflects the change in society," he says. "But I personally find a more formal style would come across as more authoritative. Especially on the world stage."

The mens' magazine GQ commended outgoing Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for the perfect fit of his tailor-made suits, voting him to be the best-dressed man in Germany.

But Lönneker believes that politicians today strive for the more inconspicuous attire in an attempt to appeal to the general public. "Therefore we will hardly see any style-icons stand out in the new government."

Designated vice-chancellor Robert Habeck's style is the most casual of all new government members: He always sports designer stubble and has never been seen with a tie.

Lönneker says that is completely acceptable these days: "Even top managers today have beards, and they wear sneakers rather than dress shoes and have done away with ties. So there is no indication that Robert Habeck will have to rethink his outfits. It would be a different matter if he insisted on wearing a hoodie to work — but that is highly unlikely."

This article has been translated from German.

Casual clothes are king during the pandemic

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