The Saddam Hussein Guide to Courtroom Fashion

What not to wear? A tie.

Saddam Hussein in caftan

The suit may make the man, but can it do anything for a fallen dictator? Not enough for Saddam Hussein, apparently. When Saddam first returned to the public eye for his trial in October, he sported a series of bespoke Turkish-wool suits that the fledgling Iraqi republic had purchased from his former tailor. But on Monday, he scrapped the suits in favor of a blue caftan (or dishdasha). It’s an unusual choice for a suave secularist like Saddam, but it could be a shrewd fashion move.

Last December Robin Givhan of the Washington Post opined thatSaddam’s suits were a bid for global approval. By adhering to the dress code of international politics, Givhan argued, Saddam sent the message that he was still a world leader and not a local warlord. But the new caftan suggests that Saddam has other ideas in mind. It’s hard to think of a better way for Saddam to signal solidarity with anti-Western Islamists than by standing trial in the traditional robe of the Arab nomad.

The caftan may not represent a change in strategy, however: There are signs that Saddam has been delicately courting Islamists with his outfits all along.

Saddam Hussein in suit, minus tie

The first was Saddam’s missing necktie at the earlier sessions of the trial. Before his capture, the despot favored bold silk ties with ornate patterns, tucked behind the occasional vest. It’s true that prisoners are often forbidden ties for fear they’ll use them to hang themselves, but they’re usually granted permission to wear them in the courtroom, so Saddam’s tielessness was probably intentional. And Saddam’s unfettered collar could be a deliberate play for Islamist support.

The necktie has a knotty history in the Middle East. For some hard-core Islamists, its crisscross shape resembles a crucifix. For other, less fanciful Muslims, it’s simply an emblem of encroaching Westernization. In the 1920s, when the secularist leader Mustafa Kemal came to power in Turkey, he encouraged his countrymen to abandon traditional Muslim garb in favor of suits and neckties. The modern style quickly swept the country and hasn’t changed much since. In neighboring Arab countries, this advance of the necktie—like Kemal’s Romanized Ottoman alphabet—was perceived as yet another inroad on traditional Islamic society.

In Iran, the tie became a much more controversial symbol of Westernization. The CIA helped Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi * take power in the early ‘50s, and in the years that followed, the shah’s necktie linked him with his U.S. backers and their corporate oil interests. For many Iranians living under the shah, it was also a sign of his subservience and decadence. (Iranians still sometimes refer to the shah’s rule as “the regime of the Crown and Necktie.”) After the shah’s ouster in 1979, the tie came under fire from Ayatollah Khomeini, who sought a return to Islamist—or at least anti-Western—attire. Ever since the revolution, Iranian officials have adhered to an unspoken dress code of dark suits, unkempt beards, and bare collars. (One of the ironies of Saddam’s tielessness was that it made him look more like Iran’s President Ahmadinejad than he would probably have cared to admit.) With their loaded history, neckties now make for a ready symbol of dissidence for pro-Western Iranian students, who nearly always wear them in protests.

But if Saddam’s tielessness appealed to anti-Western Islamists, his suits remained important for Baathist loyalists, who associated his power with his sense of style. (Saddam hasn’t given up on suits entirely; he wore one to court on Tuesday.) But by opting for the dishdasha, even briefly, Saddam seems to be broadening his appeal to Islamists across the Middle East, which he has been known to do in times of duress. When Operation Desert Storm appeared imminent in 1991, Saddam had the words “God is great” hastily scrawled on the Iraqi flag and declared a global jihad on the West.

The added bonus of an Islamist look for Saddam is that it might help him overcome his considerable image problem. In 2003, the once-dapper tyrant emerged from his “spider hole” looking more like a homeless man than the autocrat whose pristine French cuffs made for a stark contrast with his bloodstained hands. He later graced the cover of the New York Post in a grungy pair of briefs that evoked a diaper. It’s important for Saddam to get these embarrassing images behind him, especially in the midst of a war in which photographs have had no small impact.

There are other possible reasons for Saddam’s courtroom appearance. Perhaps he didn’t think the tribunal deserved the gesture of a necktie. There’s even a chance that U.S. and Iraqi officials are controlling Saddam’s attire, though that seems highly unlikely. Saddam has complained about many indignities of his confinement—the lack of showers, the infrequent laundry service, the physical abuse by guards—but so far he has voiced no discontent with his wardrobe. “I’m very sensitive about these matters,” he reportedly told his former tailor, who also cuts suits for Pervez Musharraf and Nelson Mandela. For those sensitive enough to see it, Saddam is using every stitch available to make his allegiances known.

* Correction, February 21, 2006: The original version of this piece mistakenly referred to Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi as Reza Shah Pahlavi. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.