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U.S. President George W. Bush points out a feature of the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza alongside guide Federica Sodi, Regional Director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, as Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper look on, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula March 30, 2006.

REUTERS/Jason Reed

World leaders gathering at the G20 Summit in Toronto this weekend have a crucial decision to make, one that can affect their sway in negotiations and impact their stature on the international stage: What to wear?

Make no mistake, the personal style choices of politicians, from their ties to their power suits, are always highly calculated decisions, says Sandy Dumont, founder and president of the U.S.-based World Association of Image Consultants.

"You don't want to look like a stiff shirt, and you don't want to look flashy," she says.

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For proof of style's role in statecraft, look no further than Madeleine Albright's brooches. The former U.S. secretary of state's favourite pins, which she liked to use to communicate with others, are currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

"When people asked me what kind of mood I was in or what I was working on I'd say, 'Read my pins,' " Albright told CNN in 2005.

As an example from closer to home of how a politician's fashion choices can impact his stature, Diane Craig, president of Corporate Class Inc., a Toronto-based image and etiquette consulting company, points to the frumpy green vest Stephen Harper wore during a photo op in Mexico with then-Mexican president. (above)

"It challenges your level of performance in some respects," she says. It didn't help that Harper looked so odd standing next to Fox and Bush, both of whom were similarly dressed, rather elegantly, in white linen shirts and khakis. "If you dress like you are inferior, then you'll appear as incompetent," Craig says.

At gatherings such as the G20, most male politicians typically favour a dark suit, white shirt and simple tie, a conservative look that conveys stability and seriousness, Dumont says.

"You want to look discreet and elegant and refined," she says, adding that doing so can be a secret weapon when it comes to diplomacy. "People are hard-wired to defer to the more powerful or high-status person in a group," she says.

On the other hand, politicians who dress too dandyish risk seeing their clothes speak louder than their words, Dumont says. As an example, she points to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose flashy suits, tans and jewellery may hurt his reputation among his fellow politicians.

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"You can't look slick, like you're a womanizer or like you're going to Las Vegas - and that's what Silvio does," she says.

But while male politicians can easily play it safe with a dark suit and white shirt, female politicians, such as Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, who has often been criticized for appearing dowdy, can't rely on such a standard-issue outfit. Instead, they have to make sartorial decisions that manage to be stylish without diminishing their seriousness.

"You have to be really careful about looking dowdy," Craig says. "Looking dowdy can make it look like your ideas are behind the times."

One female politician who always managed to both dress well and come off as intelligent and sophisticated, Craig says, is former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Some elements of political style, however, just can't be pulled from a closet. The megawatt smile and star power of Barack Obama, to name an obvious example, will no doubt help draw delegates to him, Dumont says.

And that kind of magnetism isn't as easy to procure as a navy blue suit - "it's almost something you're born with," Dumont says.

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That said, politicians are no doubt practising their smiles in the mirror and adjusting their ties just so at this very moment.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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