When revolutionaries dress for success

PRESIDENT Daniel Ortega Saavedra of Nicaragua shrewdly camouflaged himself in New York City, a well-known jungle where dress is nothing if not camouflage. While attending the 40th anniversary celebration of the United Nations, Mr. Ortega took time out to roll his 17-car motorcade to Cohen's Fashion Optical on the Upper East Side, where he bought six pairs of Silhouette frames with lenses made of polycarbonate, the unbreakable plastic that protects New York taxi drivers from their passengers (or vice versa) . Joining in loyally on Operation Chic, Ortega's wife acquired three pairs of Gucci frames for herself and three Florucci frames for their daughter back home. And they call this man a Marxist, a revolutionary! Diplomatic observers could not help admiring the ingenious way Ortega, with the additional aid of a pin-stripe suit, disguised himself as a look-alike capitalist.

As the salesman at Cohen's Fashion Optical remarked, his ``sophisticated yet simple'' glasses gave Ortega ``the usual Wall Street look.'' To complete the brilliant masquerade, Ortega paid his bill -- more than $3,500 -- with a Diner's Club card.

Perhaps you're not convinced that Mr. Ortega is heroically suppressing his plain tastes, his proletarian identity, in order to come to terms with the Reagan administration. Perhaps something cynical in you whispers that maybe, just maybe, the man doesn't totally detest 17-car motorcades, first-class hotels, and pin-stripe suits -- not to mention ``fashion opticals.''

Well, then, there is always the alternative explanation, known as the Law of Reverse Chic. According to reverse chic, the young wear three-piece suits like the old, and the old wear bicycle shorts like the young. Men and women aspire to look like the other, or at least unisex. Meanwhile, the natives of New York, passing the dandified Ortega on the street, dress in tunic jackets and trousers that are the '80s field-uniform version of Castro, Ch'e Guevara, and the old Ortega-guerrilla-Yuppie.

Whatever became of the proletarian look, once de rigueur for proletarian leaders like Mr. Ortega, now affordable only by the affluent?

Nikita Khrushchev wore a suit, but he wore it as a peasant would on Sunday, pink-faced, with the collar choking him and the shoulders ready to split -- a discount suit off the rack, one size too small. Mikhail Gorbachev, with his dark, smoothly tailored outfits, diagonal-stripe ties, and neat half-rims, is a whole revolution-in-style away. If Ortega looks like a slightly swinging Wall Street broker, Mr. Gorbachev looks like an extra-solid banker, about to turn down the broker's loan application.

Perhaps the most unrevolutionary look to both Ortega and Gorbachev is supplied by the wives beside them -- two Reverse Chic women as fashion-conscious as Nancy Reagan.

Meanwhile, the New Men in China appear to be shedding Mao suits for conservative Western dress, while Chinese youth affect sunglasses, trench coats, T-shirts with slogans in English, and, of course, jeans.

The full irony of Reverse Chic may be savored in the ubiquitous phenomenon of jeans. If anybody can remember that far back, jeans were originally the work clothes of poor Americans -- co-opted, complete with designer labels, by rich Americans. Reverse Chic, Phase 1. Now they are worn by working proles the world over -- trying to look like rich Americans. Double Reverse Chic -- and you can't get much more chic than that.

Do revolutionaries in capitalist clothing, like Ortega, signal a cultural thaw? More likely they signal general confusion -- some deep lack of wholeness made visible. The commissars have joined the emperors who have no clothes -- but no clothes from only the very best designers.

In a world where all leaders dress up pretty much the same for international television, one can only wonder: What would a true radical like Mohandas Gandhi wear if he were alive today -- and in possession of a major credit card?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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