Dressing for Disaster

Over the past two weeks a massive forest fire has been burning in central Sweden. A fire this huge is very unusual in the north, and the situation was declared a national emergency about a week ago. So far the blaze has lead to one casualty, several burn victims and over one thousand people having to leave their homes. As Sweden goes to election to parliament in September, the fire inevitably has become a political hot potato, with accusations of blame over which party could have handled the crisis the best.

Last week several top politicians, as well as the Swedish king, visited the affected area, and although not unified by political belonging the dress code was certainly aligned. First politicians on the scene were Eskil Erlandsson, minister of agriculture, and Karin Enström, defense minister.  Similar to when President Obama worked the field after  hurricane Sandy in 2012, they were both dressed down.

US president Obama after the hurricane Sandy in 2012

US president Obama after the hurricane Sandy in 2012

Swedish minister of agriculture Erlandsson and defense minister Enström

Swedish minister of agriculture Erlandsson and defense minister Enström

When meeting people whom have fled their homes and might not have anything to return to, or talking to fire fighters and other rescue personnel working around the clock, this is a way of showing respect. Erlandson showed up wearing a light purple short sleeved shirt and dark green cargo pants. Enström also choose a short sleeved shirt in a checked pattern, khaki skirt, sandals, a simple ponytail and a makeup free face.

Prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and prime minister candidate Stefan Löfven both met the press in the affected area tie –and jacket free, dressed in white shirts. Not visible in the footage is if any of them sported Obama’s signature move with rolled up sleeves, ready to “dig in”.

Prime minister Reinfeldt

Prime minister Reinfeldt

Prime minister candidate Löfven

Prime minister candidate Löfven

Obama sporting his signature look of roles up sleeves

Obama sporting his signature look of rolled up sleeves

Not only politicians elected by vote visited the scene, the Swedish king and chief of state also made an appearance. While Erlandson and Enström looked like they had hurried to the scene, the king looked more put together as he was dressed in a light summer suit matched with a plaid hat.

The Swedish king Carl XVI Gustaf

The Swedish king Carl XVI Gustaf

I am not a fan of semiotic analyses of fashion to be read in the same way as the spoken language, but when it comes to politics the rhetorical importance is striking. What I find interesting about these examples is that there is a political dress code for (natural) disasters (the King being an expected deviation, as his function is to lift people’s spirits by merely showing up rather than presenting plans of action and answering to people’s anger and frustration). If the elected politicians would show up looking to smooth, it would signal to much effort put into sartorial matters and to little into putting out the fire. Here I used president Obama as a point of reference, and although the US and Sweden have very different political landscapes, dressing down appears to serve as a unifying point when showing humility in situations of disaster that demands everyone to be working on the same side.

Images are in appeared order borrowed from Politico.com, Sveriges Radio, Aftonbladet TV, Politico.com and Sveriges Radio.