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Example: the national costume of Malaysia for men is the Baju Melayu. The current Malaysian Prime Minister is Muhyiddin Yassin. Googling for images of him, we find lots of photos of him in a suit and tie, but comparatively few of him in a Baju Melayu. Why? It seems especially appropriate for him to do so at venues where he is representing the country, e.g. at international meetings, but no - usually every male leader at these meetings wears suits and ties. Female leaders wear more varied clothing, but still nobody wears their country's traditional costume.

A first guess is that traditional costumes are usually impractical to wear, but that doesn't seem like the case - e.g. the Tangzhuang, Sarafan and Kilt all look very wearable.

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    Some do (Narendra Modi and Pakistani leaders come to mind). Some also wear something that might not be a proper national costume but is chosen as a deliberate rejection of formal Western/European business attire (Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko). – Relaxed Sep 14 at 8:01
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    There is a photo from 2017 which went viral a while ago where a representative from Papua New Guinea appeared at the UN wearing traditional tribal wear. But that was a one-time thing he did to make a point. – Philipp Sep 14 at 9:02
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    I think the correct word in this context is "regalia", rather than "costume", as the latter is more of a theatrical word, while "regalia" relates more to what a citizen would wear to a formal social function. But that's just a nitpick of language. – computercarguy Sep 14 at 23:07
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    The Kilt is worn without any kind of undergarment, which might not be the best choice for e.g. negotiations where you sit across from each other, press conferences where you stand on a stage, coming down or walking up the stairs of your airplane, the classic photo op in chairs side-by-side facing the audience, and probably many other typical situations a politicians might find themselves in. – Jörg W Mittag Sep 15 at 6:48
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    @computercarguy, "Regalia" might have extended its meaning from the attire of a king to other functionaries, but it definitely still implies clothing and accessories that indicate status and authority, especially garb that distinguishes them from the masses. National costume, by contrast, tends to be a leveller: it conveys very little in the way of social status. – Michael Kay Sep 17 at 7:55
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Why should they? What advantage do they gain from wearing some traditional costume? Wearing traditional costumes has some implications:

  • What is an appropriate "traditional costume" for a country? Is the bavarian leather pants representative for Germany? Surely not. Wearing the traditional costume of your region may be considered inappropriate or even offensive in other regions of the same country. A suit is neutral
  • It is often only a cliche. If people do not wear these kind of clothing in everyday life, why wear it on international meetings?
  • Other countries do not do it, especially not the rich western countries. Why single yourself out with clothing? It immediately creates a visual difference between "the rich westerners" and "the others"
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    A suit is not neutral at all, this answer is very superficial and completely misses the historical background and political implications of that choice. – Relaxed Sep 14 at 8:01
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    Your comment misses the point. I never claimed a suite is neutral world-wide (although this is more or less how it evolved historically). But within a country it is not associated with any specific region, ethnicity, etc while "traditional clothing" is typically only linked to parts of the country – Manziel Sep 14 at 8:16
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    @Relaxed - While you may be correct, the fact is that what matters for practical purposes is whether world leaders perceive it as neutral, which all the evidence suggests they do. Even a number of staunchly anti-Western, anti-imperialist leaders (or at least, who would describe themselves as such) can regularly be spotted wearing tailored suits. – Obie 2.0 Sep 14 at 17:18
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    @Relaxed - Like it or not (obviously not), many people see it as neutral, because it does not have any ties to their country. You seem to think that it is impossible to deliberately choose an option that one sees as neutral, which might be part of the discrepancy here.... But in reality, we are dealing with a situation where something is chosen deliberately, but because it is perceived as neutral (i.e. not having a bias toward one side or the other). – Obie 2.0 Sep 14 at 18:30
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    Wearing the traditional costume of your region may also be considered inappropriate or offensive by people who wear such costumes, if they feel you're trying to appropriate the costume or that it's primarily a political stunt. – NotThatGuy Sep 14 at 19:18
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National costumes represent old traditions

In most countries the "national costume" is essentially historical reenactment which represents the way these people dressed in, for example, 18th century. It is not a reflection of how the people dressed before or after that, in general, you will have very, very different "traditional dress" in different ages and centuries. And, more importantly, in many cases (though not all) it's not a reflection of how people of that nation dress now and it would be unusual for any person to wear it outside of specific events that are about old traditions.

Furthermore, many "national costumes" (of which I'm aware of, mostly around Europe - perhaps e.g. Asia is very different) reflect a traditional peasant attire - often focusing on the wealthier segment of farmers, but not something that a politician or nobleman would have ever worn in history.

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    Yes. You don't see Americans dressing like pilgrims or Englishmen dressing in wigs (alright maybe bad example...the latter happens in certain venues). – Paul Draper Sep 15 at 2:57
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    But the suit & tie represents an old Western tradition, and is not normal dress for the great majority of American men. In a lot of places, "suit" is a term of contempt, used for people in management (or lawyers &c) that are far removed from any understanding of practical problems. – jamesqf Sep 15 at 4:35
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    A number of American politicians have worn cowboy boots and big hats, even a few Presidents. Does that count? It is, as this answer suggests, evocative of an old tradition. – Robyn Sep 15 at 6:57
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    @Robyn: If you happen to live in the rural West, "cowboy boots" (at least the non-fancy versions) and hats are practical everyday working/recreating attire. Far more so than a suit :-) – jamesqf Sep 15 at 16:21
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    This is correct. For example, the modern-day kilt that Scots sometimes wear to weddings was ordinary street attire for only a short period in the 1700's. It is based on an even older traditional garment going back to the Middle Ages, but no one but re-enactors (e.g. SCA) actually wear the old version (which was more like a large blanket that was draped around the body). – Robert Columbia Sep 16 at 21:38
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Saudi Arabians wearing traditional dress Xi Jingping wearing traditional suit Iranian ayatollah wearing traditional dress Gaddafi wearing traditional dress African union members some of whom are wearing traditional dress King of Bhutan wearing traditional dress Indian politicians in traditional dress Pope in pope outfit, no shit State opening of parliament

Most leaders want to strike a balance - on one hand, establishing their distinct national sovereignty and the fine cultural traditions they come from, and how the legitimacy of their rule stretches back many generations; on the other, that they're modern, up-to-date and of course if you visit or trade with us you won't feel alienated or suffer unexpected troubles due to our unfamiliar culture.

Needless to say, a lot of this depends on how people dress in your home country right now - on cultural inertia. The Pope wearing the traditional outfit is completely normal, but if the Irish Taoiseach attended meetings in a St Patrick's Day outfit, that would seem less traditional and more bizarre.

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    Note that many of the rulers wearing traditional dress in this picture are autocratic rulers. – nick012000 Sep 15 at 7:00
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    Nobody in the last two pictures is wearing anything that would be considered "National costume". It's the formal dress for their office, not for their nationality. – DJClayworth Sep 15 at 14:16
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    @DJClayworth Pope Francis actually does not wear the formal dress for his office. He rejected the traditional papal mozzetta from day one of his papacy and instead opted for a more simple outfit. – Philipp Sep 15 at 14:24
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    Good info, but my point is still that it's the dress he has chosen to represent his office, not the costume of his nationality - either Argentinian or Vatican. – DJClayworth Sep 15 at 14:47
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    @mjt Actually the Pope is a national leader. He is the head of state of the Vatican. But for the rest, yes. – DJClayworth Sep 16 at 12:41
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International diplomacy tends to focus on commonalities, not differences.

When world leaders meet at international events, the goal is typically to come to some agreement. Highlighting the differences between two nations does nothing to further that end, and only reinforces the notion that the nations are unlike one another. Strong diplomatic ties are often formed between nations that are like one another historically or ideologically or politically, while starkly different nations may not get along as well.

Entering a meeting where you hope to find common ground with another person while wearing something that screams "we are not the same" does not engender a spirit of working together. Traditional costumes may have their place at events that seek to highlight diversity or world cultures, but they won't help world leaders come to terms on economic, human rights, or climate issues, and may actually act as a detriment.

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The question you should ask yourself is what would a Western European or North American leader be wearing at a time when national dress would be appropriate. The answer is probably military uniform (in the small number of cases that would be appropriate), or black tie ( aka the Tuxedo), or more likely white tie (i.e. a white bow tie and a tail coat) for men, or a similarly formal evening gown for a woman.

You'll note that there are similarly few photos of such leaders dressed like that as well. The majority of photos of heads of government are when they are at business, in business attire. That doesn't necessarily mean a lounge suit, but doesn't mean the kind of national dress you seem to be thinking of, which are mostly highly formalized versions of the traditional clothes of rural workers.

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  • North American leaders certainly have other options. – Relaxed Sep 14 at 17:41
  • But then we have to ask why military uniforms (I mean dress uniforms, not combat fatigues) of other cultures are such blatant copies of western European ones? – jamesqf Sep 14 at 17:44
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    @jamesqf That one is the end result of imperialism, coupled with parallel developments in technology for the areas which either remained independent or gained independence earlier than others. – origimbo Sep 14 at 18:23
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    Really it would depend on the time of day. The European/American tradition both "black tie" and "white tie" are "evening dress" and not to be worn during the day. A "morning coat" is the daytime counterpart to white tie - if you look back to say WW1 era diplomacy, you'll see them worn for formal daytime meetings. A business suit is the daytime counterpart to black tie, and today you see that and black tie, with white tie only worn at the most extremely formal evening occasions by someone desiring to protect an image of tradition rather than modernity, and the morning coat basically extinct. – Chris Stratton Sep 14 at 19:17
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It is somewhat popular in diplomacy. Ex:

https://www.novinite.com/articles/195780/The+Ambassador+of+Bulgaria+to+India+Took+Office+in+a+Folk+Costume

Then again, most national costumes are pretty much impractical for office-bound work of any kind. They simply evolved for other purposes.

In a national context, they can express (using small regional differences) a preference between national fractions (there are always some). A national leader is not expected to do that.

In international context, it is like not speaking lingua franca - you can still do your job, but you are suboptimal at best.

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