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German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Dirk Niebel gets a steel helmet and a flak jacket in Termez before his flight to Kunduz in Afghanistan.
Photo: Thomas Imo/Getty Images

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The Political Impossibility of What to Wear With Your Flak Jacket

Jared Kushner is only the latest politico to look like a doof.

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Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, was always going to look out of place in Iraq. Baghdad is far from Manhattan, where the 36-year-old worked in the family development business and published The Observer before his rapid transition to statecraft. With a political neophyte charged with brokering Middle East peace, the fear of pratfalls was high, and the prospect of a fashion faux pas hardly registered. The lasting image of his recent trip, however, was of Kushner in prep staples — khakis, blue oxford shirt, blue blazer, and sunglasses — and a fitted flak jacket. He “couldn’t have looked more out of a place,” the Huffington Post crowed about the photo that spawned one thousand memes, including a plausible J.Crew cover.

While this farce befits a man whose political wardrobe is literally an après-ski collection, seasoned politicos have also struggled with flak jackets. It is an inescapably utilitarian item designed to protect vital organs from shrapnel and projectiles. The flak jacket is also clothing, even fashion, a fitted outer layer in the mode of a blouson or vest. It has to be paired with other items, but what, exactly, should a prominent political figure wear when visiting a war zone? One risks looking like either a military LARPer or an edgy #menswear blogger, with few good options between these extremes. Indeed, since the Coalition of the Willing’s invasion of Iraq, the flak jacket has left many politicians looking foolish.

This sartorial gauntlet originated in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Wall-to-wall live coverage of the first Gulf War made it all but impossible for politicians to maintain a formal presentation in military settings. Wartime officials may still wish to channel Winston Churchill, but the media environment that allowed for dignified poses in tailored overcoats is a thing of the past.

Political photos, even if they are far from naturalistic, must at least approximate war. That imperative challenges a basic rule of political optics: Don’t play dress-up. Michael Dukakis never lived down wearing a jumpsuit and helmet while visiting a General Dynamics plant during the 1988 presidential campaign. Instead of making the candidate look tough, the appearance provided fodder for George H.W. Bush’s attack ads, which painted Dukakis as weak and foolish. “You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president,” President Obama told the US Naval Academy’s football team after they offered him a custom helmet. “That’s politics 101.”

Michael Dukakis riding in a tank.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The flak jacket, as a basic sop to safety and context, is less intrusive than a helmet. But it was far from unobtrusive during New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s 2015 visit to Camp Taji, located just north of Baghdad. He paired the garment with a gray button-down, tan pants, and a baseball cap. The brown flak jacket emphasized the length of his untucked shirtfront. While the outfit did not imply that Key was a soldier, it did suggest that he was in some danger: Why else would he be wearing the flak jacket?

In New Zealand, where the trip was kept a secret until Key had left Camp Taji, that question of optics was one of the trip’s main legacies. “I think there's a lot of drama and dramatics attached to the reporting that doesn't really stack up in terms of the real risk to Key,” declared opposition defense critic David Shearer. The former United Nations worker had lived in Iraq and suggested that the whole trip’s framing distorted the dangers of “just another day in Iraq.” Most of the pictures accompanying coverage of this spat were of Key in his flak jacket. Shearer didn’t even have to mention it; the garment was the perfect visual metaphor for a politician assessment of military risk.

Although New Zealand’s involvement in Iraq was limited to 143 servicepeople on a training mission, that was somehow not the country’s sole flak jacket episode of 2015. Defense minister Gerry Brownlee tested out the studied nonchalance of pairing a flak jacket with an untucked shirt at Camp Taji months before Key’s trip. “As well as yoga,” a reporter on Brownlee’s trip wrote about Camp Taji, “there is line-dancing, salsa, creative writing courses, two 24-7 gyms, and sports.” This environment did little to mitigate the visual effect of Brownlee’s flak jacket.

Prime Minister John Howard arrives in the green, or international, zone in Baghdad, Iraq in 2015.
Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald/Getty Images

Opposition politician Winston Peters held up a photo of the outfit in Parliament while asking “Was he wearing a flak jacket off the shelf, or custom-made and more expensive than a normal New Zealand serviceman's flak jacket?” Brownlee, who is built like a portlier John Goodman, denied knowing the outfit’s provenance and answered: “Anybody taking a bit of a glance would know that off-the-shelf is not something I regularly purchase.” He later invited Peters to visit Iraq without a flak jacket. The exchange clarified that, even when worn nonchalantly, a flak jacket could come to represent political vanity.

American politicians have hardly fared better than their Oceanic counterparts in this regard. While George W. Bush cultivated a military aesthetic as president, he studiously avoided being seen in flak jackets. When he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in October 2001 — a symbol of post-9/11 normalcy — Bush covered his flak jacket with an FDNY pullover. Five years later, during a surprise visit to Iraq, his advisors were photographed wearing flak jackets during a helicopter ride. The body armor covered their chins such that they looked inescapably cowed and dweebish. “The results,” the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quipped about the photograph, “was more Michael Dukakis than Mission Accomplished.” Equivalent images of the president were conspicuously absent. Bush, Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy claimed, “did not wear any of the security — you know, the flak jacket.” Doocy’s telling cast Bush as a man among dorks. It was also at odds with most other reporting. “They didn't want us to get any pictures of that,” CNN’s John King reported. “We were told that he had body armor on.”

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Iraq, 2005.
Photo:  AFP/Getty Images

Escaping the dreaded flak jacket image appears to be a perk the president does not share with staffers and appointees. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security and later his second secretary of state, was regularly photographed with body armor. She diminished the visual impact of the flak jacket by wearing tonally similar outfits: cream with desert camouflage; taupe when wearing a darker flak jacket. John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, made no such effort to obscure the flak jacket during his stint as secretary of state in the latter half of the Obama presidency. In 2014, he arrived in Baghdad wearing a brown flak jacket over a blue suit, white shirt, and red power tie. The contrast between these different items was unavoidable. The military culture blog Under the Radar deemed that look “even weirder” than Kushner’s.

Jared Kushner’s approach to wearing a flak jacket nevertheless stands out because it combines tactics used by so many other political figures in a single outfit. Like Kerry, he didn’t attempt to minimize the flak jacket’s visual heft and wore it over a blazer. There were, however, nods to the curious nonchalance of Brownlee and Key. Instead of their untucked shirts, Kushner ditched Kerry’s tie and belt. All told, it’s a miracle Kushner wore socks. The net result was at once strikingly formal, compared to the surrounding servicemen, and strangely casual. Not only did Jared Kushner look remarkably out of place in Iraq, he also looked borderline stylish. Twitter’s gleeful mockery of the outfit — variously derided as “preparing to storm Martha’s Vineyard” or “when you have war at 7 but a croquet game at 8” or “if Wes Anderson made a war movie” — focused on this tension. While none of these jokes encourage dressing like Jared Kushner, they also don’t suggest that the look is bad in and of itself. Even the fake J.Crew cover’s mockery posited that there was a fashionable quality to this omnishambles. That, it turns out, is the worst possible look.

Jimmy Fallon as Kushner in his flak jacket on Saturday Night Live.
Photo: NBC/Getty Images

While Kushner’s flak jacket fiasco drew on those of his political predecessors, it stood out because he looked more like a broadcaster than a politician. Brian Williams covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq while wearing button-downs and chinos. His flak jackets — sometimes in camouflage and sometimes in solid colors — were fitted like proper outerwear. Occasionally, he rolled up the sleeves. These images have taken on a different meaning since the revelation that Williams exaggerated his wartime experiences, but there was never a risk that the anchor would be mistaken for a politician. Up until the point where they engage in fabulism, gallivanting journalists are allowed to appear somewhat cool. Political attempts to look cool, on the other hand, are almost always doomed. Jared Kushner, though he looked as much of a square as John Kerry, appeared to be unaware of this dynamic. There is no worse kind of square than the oblivious one.

Staring into his wardrobe, Jared Kushner would have been loath to find an outfit that made him fit in while visiting American troops in Iraq. An overgrown string bean of a human with the unfortunate habit of making every event look like a night out for management consultants was never going to be in his element with Marine General Joseph Dunford. Although these kinds of visits reaffirm civilian control of the military, the visiting dignitary is at a notable disadvantage; they cannot help but look out of place. The flak jacket, as a fashion challenge, is a reminder of these asymmetries. Whether too formal or casual, all gaffes are fundamentally complaints about interlopers drawing too much attention to themselves. Jared Kushner did just that, and we all have the memes to prove it.

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