World's best dressed candidates? In Afghan election, it's cape versus cravat.

How to dress for success in Afghanistan? Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah are candidates for the world's best-dressed politicians.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters
Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives for a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 17.
Altaf Qadri/AP
Abdullah Abdullah arrives for a meeting with his leading supporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 26.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – It’s an old complaint: Reporters will point out the sartorial choices of female politicians while their male colleagues rarely get the same treatment.

So let’s strike a blow for gender equality and, as a bonus, say one of the few upbeat things that can be said about the Afghan elections: These are two of the best-dressed presidential candidates in living memory.

Up until the last weeks before the Aug. 20 first round, most analysts expected President Hamid Karzai to handily retain his preeminence – in both politics and dress. But former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah seemingly came out of nowhere with his crème-fraîche French jackets and violet ties.

By the time Mr. Karzai emerged last week (five hours late) to publicly accept a runoff, his flashy green cape and pointy wool chapeau – once exotic to Western eyes as a sort of King Friday of the Hindu Kush – felt somewhat, well, dated.

In fact, Karzai was visually overpowered by the wall of suits to his right worn by the UN representative, US Sen. John Kerry, and the ambassadors of the US, Britain, and France. Nothing says Western authority like a row of suits.

Yet, no one can take away Karzai’s early success. In naming him one of the world’s best-dressed men in 2004, Esquire raved: “Karzai mixes traditional dress from Afghanistan with the Western tradition of the suit jacket. What makes it work are the fabrics and colors he employs, which show it was all carefully considered. As a new player on the international scene, he must appeal at home and abroad. His clothes reflect that.”

The magazine went on to name him again in 2007, updating the fashion advice to match the unraveling situation: “Karzai looks confident in his clothes all the time, which is all the more remarkable considering he knows he could get blown up at any moment. The most important thing about any piece of clothing is how you wear it.”

That he is sticking with his tried-and-true ensembles seems to reflect his basic message of endurance and continuity for a fragile nation.

Enter Dr. Abdullah. His challenge has been to try to secure his political base in the north, win over Pashtuns in the south and east, and assure the international community that he can be a partner.

His biography helps: He is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik. But it’s the clothes that can make the man – depending on location. In the north, he opts for vaguely martial jackets, a reminder of his days as an adviser to the mujahideen commander and northern hero Ahmad Shah Masoud. In the south, he donned a gray turban with a strip dangling down for a Pashtun look. (More on how to dress for success in Afghanistan here.)

For Westerners, he knows exactly the right style to adopt to convince them he isn’t just some thug who bought himself a suit to play politician. Basically, he's got a touch of French flamboyance – and, if it wasn’t what I suspect would be a misunderstood word in Afghanistan, an almost metrosexual look. It’s a reminder of his more recent role as a diplomat, and it allows him to be international while standing some distance from the Americans.

A lesser dresser would have restricted his tie closet to the standard US dichotomy of blue and red.

When Abdullah sat down with three journalists earlier this month, a female reporter started out by noting his bright yellow silk tie.

“That’s an optimistic tie,” she said.

“I didn’t know that tie also means pessimistic or optimistic,” Abdullah replied, with an almost bashful side-glance and a subtle grin.

Reporter: “You know, there are somber colors that you might be trying to send a different message. But yellow? Great.”

“Yellow’s good? This is what I like, but unfortunately, in men’s world, this doesn’t have a lot of place,” says Abdullah.

“Well, you’re a trend setter,” she said. “It looks great, I just have to tell you that.”

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