With his trendy new spectacles, is Jeremy Corbyn trying to tell us something?

Luke Mintz
Jeremy Corbyn's latest spectacles, worn during his New Year's video message - Screen grab from Jeremy Corbyn's Twitter

Jeremy Corbyn could be accused of many sins, but vanity is not one of them.

During his three years in his party's hot seat, the Labour leader has shown a famous disregard for his appearance, frequently photographed in public wearing a garish grey tracksuit described by some fashion critics as looking “worryingly like a shellsuit”.

His Parliamentary attire isn’t much smarter, with Corbyn once urged by David Cameron to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem” during a particularly raucous session of Prime Minister’s Questions in 2016.

This ‘take me or leave me’ approach to fashion is one of the reasons Corbyn is so adored by his supporters, who have long disliked the slick, stylised appearance of smoother operators such as Cameron, Tony Blair and Emmanuel Macron, who is reported to have spent €26,000 (£24,000) on makeup during his first three months in office.

But this could all be changing. This week, Corbyn caused a buzz on social media after appearing in a new pair of spectacles for his New Year's video message.

The Labour leader was told by supporters on Twitter that he looked “fresh” and “trendy” in his new his half-rim frames. (His opponents were less complimentary; one sharp-tongued critic said Corbyn look like a “supermarket chain middle manager”.) 

Corbyn sporting an old pair of spectacles during his first session of Prime Minister's Questions as leader in September 2015 Credit: REUTERS

Corbyn has clearly put more thought into his new, designer-looking specs – dark on the upper half of the rim and transparent lower down – than he did into the battered old readers he usually wears halfway down his nose at PMQs, and which scream grabbed-off-the-shelf-at-Boots. And they're certainly different to the soft-edged rectangular frames he was seen wearing at last months' CBI conference.

It is perhaps not coincidental that his newest vintage-looking frames are not unlike the classic American browline glasses favoured by campaigner Malcolm X in the 1960s. 

Stranger yet, he had worn a different "new" pair the previous month – a pair of soft-edged rectangle frames – for his address to the CBI conference. 

Corbyn’s sudden appreciation of eyewear should not come as a surprise, says Jason Kirk, managing director of up-market glasses brand Kirk & Kirk. In decades gone by, Kirk says, men’s spectacles were seen as “very medical and functional”, with men over a certain age expected to pick up the cheapest pair they could find and be on their way.

But the UK’s explosion in eyewear choice over the last decade has allowed many men - including politicians and their stylists - to experiment. Now politicians can pick their spectacles carefully, with each tiny style decision conveying a certain message to the voters.

Corbyn wore a pair of soft-edged rectangle frames at the CBI's conference in November 2018 Credit: Jason Alden/ Bloomberg

By opting for his new spectacles, Kirk thinks Corbyn’s team “are probably trying to make him look stable, intelligent, non-controversial and trustworthy. Like an older, intellectual person who can be trusted. The received wisdom is that glasses make you look intelligent. It’s a real cliche, but it’s probably the message they’re going for here.

“I think it’s probably a really good choice for him. They’re not strong or heavy, or confrontational in any way. They fit him well, they’re thin in every dimension, they’re not in your face.”

Kirk says large, chunky glasses – the kind favoured by professionals looking to make a statement – in contrast, can show confidence or even aggression, while bright-coloured frames can be seen as “jovial, approachable, not too serious”.

The fact that Corbyn decided to wear spectacles at all in his New Year’s message is notable, Kirk says, as politicians usually prefer to avoid glasses due to fears of looking weak or old.

Former PM Tony Blair wore his rimless spectacles in private for months before "coming out as a glasses-wearer" in 2001. He later told a women's magazine: “I have been feeling self-conscious just because it’s a change. The trouble is you’re in the public eye and all your changes have to be made in public.”

Donald Trump, meanwhile, was quick to taunt his rival Jeb Bush for getting contact lenses “to look cool” during the Republican Party primaries in 2016.

This reluctance to wear glasses in public could soon be a thing of the past, however, with one study at the University of Cologne suggesting that voters may actually prefer bespectacled leaders to their perfect-vision opponents. Researchers showed photographs of politicians to 203 people, digitally adding glasses to some, and found that most preferred the candidates with glasses.

Tony Blair tried to hide his spectacles for three months while Prime Minister in the 1990s, he later admitted Credit: Ian Jones Retained

The pro-glasses stance only applied in peacetime, however, with respondents more split when given a wartime scenario.

Kirk says he meets a growing number of middle-aged and elderly men who are more adventurous in their approach to eyewear choice than they were just a few years ago.

Men like Corbyn, “who appear to be relatively conservative” (small-c, of course) in their fashion choice, are now routinely opting for designer glasses. “Traditionally, people have not really enjoyed glasses, they’ve just worn them because they have to,” Kirk says.

“[But] we’ve seen a massive change. I see more and more middle-aged men now, because by the time you’re middle-aged you probably have to wear glasses, so why not wear something you can really enjoy and that expresses your personality?”