I wore this cream jumper for a publicity shoot for Weird Weekends. I had never done any publicity stills before, so we did a whole bunch that in different ways spoke to the themes of the programme: one of me looking at the camera and waving a crucifix to promote the episode that was about evangelical Christians, and one that lurks on the internet where I’m wearing a feather boa but otherwise naked, to promote the one about the porn industry.
This was the neutral one that would work for any of the programmes. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what was in my mind but, as far as I can recall, it was severe conviction. That was supposed to be a normal photograph. That was me trying to look professional and presentable. “BBC presenter excited to talk to you about his new series.” But it obviously isn’t quite coming off.
Let’s study it. I’d bought this jumper at Gap. Combined with a leather jacket I supposed it looked quite roguish, a bit like Bodie in The Professionals. It was a wool-cotton blend – they tend to lose their shape a bit so I remember early on there began to be some drift. In this picture around the neckline it’s sort of OK, but the sleeve is dangling down.
Early on I was trying to cultivate a relaxed, off-duty kind of air. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a correspondent; I was there almost to have an adventure, see people in their homes, from militiamen in Idaho to those working in porn, who would not themselves have naturally worn a suit. So I was just looking for presentable and not making too big a statement.
I’m aware of people communicating through their clothes up to a point, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about clothes. I have noticed that maybe the biggest change that happened in Joe Exotic’s life between me making my film and the beginning of Netflix’s Tiger King was that when I saw him he was wearing a park ranger’s outfits, even to the point of epaulettes and maybe even a little badge; later he was leaning into a more flamboyant image. When I met him he did have a string of earrings in one ear, a shell necklace and a dyed-blond mullet hairdo, so it wasn’t as if he came across as a normal park ranger, but when he got into his country-music mode or his campaigning-for-governor mode, that required a different persona and a different wardrobe.
I’ve always liked western wear. Not tassels, huge collars or rhinestones – the understated kind. I once did a cartoon for a magazine about my sense of style called “classic rugged”. I cited Jean-Paul Belmondo in the 60s, Jack Kerouac and Tony Adams the footballer; I also mentioned Marlon Brando and David Attenborough with his chambray shirt. There’s something timeless about a certain look. Kerouac could walk into a park in 2020, if he was wearing a mask, and fit right in. I think there’s something quite cool about that.
It feeds into how I dress for documentaries. I aspire to not speak too loudly with clothes. If your clothes are more interesting than the conversation, it suggests you might be doing something wrong. There’s another thing, which is to do with a sense of consistency. I’ve always admired Gilbert and George. The fact of their having, over the course of more than 50 years, kept an utterly unvarying look is kind of amazing.
When I was starting out, there was some part of me that liked the idea of a uniform for work. It appealed to that sort of Marxist attitude of “We should all be workers”. That’s the one part of North Korea that I can get down with – the fact that for all their psychopathic tendencies, the family, Kim Jong-un and Jong-il, have always worn those collarless jackets. They sort of make a statement saying: “We’re not going to buy into this capitalist game signifying power and masculinity by wearing weird bits of cloth round our necks,” which people call ties, I believe.
• Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge is on BBC Two soon