Does it matter what our leaders wear? A new book argues that the influence of female public figures is intimately linked to their sense of styleby / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
At a state dinner for the Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this January, Michelle Obama opted for a red number by the late British designer Alexander McQueen. Flowing, satin, off one shoulder and hugging the other, it caused quite a fuss. “My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade,” said Oscar de la Renta, the Dominican-American designer, afterwards. “Why do you wear European clothes?”
The debate over Michelle’s alleged disloyalty to her nation was covered by almost every major paper in the English-speaking world, from the Washington Post to the Guardian to the Times of India. The Council of Fashion Designers of America, headed by Diane von Furstenberg, reiterated the criticism. Joan Rivers popped up in the Huffington Post calling it “Wrong. Wrong.” There followed various American stylists saying that, actually, the real problem was she was just too old for the thing; others asserting that she looked great and was terribly brave for showing her arms; and Michelle Obama herself having to defend her choice on a TV chatshow. “Look, women,” she said. “Wear what you love. That’s all I can say. That’s my motto.” This is a woman with an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Wrong wrong? Michelle Obama in her controversial Alexander McQueen dress
But as it happens, Harvard Business School might well have a bit to say about the connection between appearance and power, particularly for women. As the New York Times Style Magazine put it earlier this year: “Sarah Palin’s infamous $150,000 shopping spree during the last presidential elections underscored the fact that, in politics, a woman’s wardrobe can all too easily eclipse her ideology. Whether she’s working a trailer park-friendly plaid shirt at a campaign stop or an ethereal Dior gown at a state dinner, there is no escaping sartorial scrutiny.”
This point is central to a new book by journalist and consultant Robb Young, Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion (Merrell). “In political circles the word ‘fashion’ is still often pronounced as if it’s an expletive—‘fashion,’ that superficial business for indulgent, politically apathetic people,” he writes. This is a mistake, according to Young. If you look good, it helps. Often, a lot.
The argument is hardly surprising or new. But the book—and the wider discussion around it—makes useful mischief out of the contradictions in US culture: one that judges people, particularly women, on their dress more ferociously than almost anywhere else, and then pronounces it politically incorrect to make that judgement. And the cases where a female leader dares to defy pressure to look stylish suggest a more subtle thesis: that it is clarity of image, not glamour, that has the greatest value.
Take German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is drab, and that is entirely admirable. A woman in politics must fight for the right to be so. Regardless of location or function, she appears to wear only one type of shoe, which is black and heelless. Her trousers are normally black, too, and her jackets are almost always three-button, diagonal-pocket efforts by German designer Bettina Schoenbach. It may look as if she doesn’t care about her appearance, but she is using her clothes to make a clear statement. With great care, she is telling us that she’s above caring.
Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Israeli opposition, does something similar. Her suits look male; indeed, they often look as if they belong to someone else. And yet, on her, this is a strength: as if she’s chosen them so that they don’t constrict her when she has to throw a punch.
Such an effect is all the more forceful because so few other female politicians have the nerve to go the full Merkel—which is why they can end up looking like Elton John. (Exhibit one: Tarja Halonen, president of Finland, below) That’s the intriguing thing about female political attire. Get it only slightly wrong, and the lasting impression is one of bleak and crushing indignity.
Finland’s president, Tarja Halonen
Young’s book is a study of this, and a celebration. In some ways, it is about as reductively offensive as you can get. The title unthinkingly conflates female politicians and politicians’ wives—wildly different roles. Yet it would be naive to dismiss the author’s thesis as irredeemably lightweight. Simple choices of dress have proved critical time and again in cultivating political appeal.
Consider the linked, yet opposing, examples of Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi. Jemima Khan once described the former as “a kleptocrat in Hermès headscarf,” but that obviously wasn’t the look the late prime minister of Pakistan was going for. Her task was to look modern yet Islamic; glamorous, yet modest. Towards the end she started looking like her own waxwork but, for the most part, she pulled it off admirably. “In private, people in Pakistan sometimes say that Benazir looked uncomfortable in her salwar kameez,” notes Young, adding she “probably had to compromise her personal style for the sake of survival.”
Benazir Bhutto, once described as a “a kleptocrat in Hermès headscarf”
Indira Gandhi, by contrast, chose humble woven saris. The fact that the most powerful woman in India—head of its ruling dynasty—chose the simplest of clothing is no coincidence, but a conscious decision to link her image directly to the ethos of Mahatma Gandhi and to root her in the minds of Indians as one of them. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the importance of political dress, and the delicate interplay of style and substance. Indeed, one could even plot the cultural differences of India and Pakistan during the latter half of the 20th century through analysis of the two women’s clothes. India, starting humble and ever-soaring; Pakistan, heir to the Mughals, unabashedly flashy but too contradictory to last.
The deliberately humble Indira Gandhi
Of course, not all powerful women have a successful wardrobe to match. Female politicians will sometimes be bold and brave yet still get it terribly wrong. I’m thinking in particular of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina (below). A former first lady—which might tell us something—her rise has been formidable, yet it’s still hard to take her seriously because she looks like one of those over-made-up north London mums who keep nicking their daughter’s clothes. Two years ago, her part in a quite strange, but very successful, Argentinian satirical television show was played by a man in drag. She now looks like a figure of fun; the harder she tries, the worse it gets. Still, at least it’s an image with clarity. Despite topping the “worst dressed” lists, she also far outstrips her rivals in the opinion polls.
Normally, though, a sartorial endeavour gone horribly wrong is a sign of wider problems. Consider Rachida Dati, former French MP, now an MEP. From a poor immigrant family, she has somehow managed to take her rags-to-riches story and cast it in a manner the French public found unsympathetic. Columnists speculated as to how she could afford her clothes and decided she must have been given them; it made her seem corrupt, or at least, corruptible. The French satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné mocked her furiously, throwing in words like baksheesh. France was already wary of her Arabic heritage, her child born to a mystery father, and the occasional dodgy brother (she is one of 12 children). One might argue that instead of reassuring her critics, her appearance—too much black, too much Christian Dior—fought them. And she lost.
A hard-edged image can work flawlessly, however—it did for Margaret Thatcher. Hers was a look of British femininity, cast in iron—an impression not dissimilar to Britannia on a 50-pence piece. In tweed suits and pussybow blouses, she was the nation’s fearsome nanny; she could not have come from anywhere else.
Thatcher: British femininity cast in iron?
A more contemporary version of what she was doing could possibly be seen in Sarah Palin. Her clothes, unlike almost anything else about her, have been an absolute triumph. While she can sometimes look a bit too much like Reese Witherspoon trying to be taken seriously as a law student in Legally Blonde, her stylists have successfully achieved a transformation which Robb Young calls the “Political Cinderella.” Her original “hockey mom” authenticity has been harnessed, but also varnished. Vigorously styled, often in crop-sleeved Valentino jackets, the task was to keep that rogue element, while also making her look like somebody with a place in the political establishment: somebody who had already arrived, rather than the arriviste she really was. The fact that it’s still a shock to hear how crazy she is when she talks is a testament to just how well this worked.
Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s first female prime minister, has also crafted a look that fits her message perfectly. There’s a lot of Thatcher in her, too, but alongside a more passive-aggressive sort of Slavic femininity. She’ll sit down next to Vladimir Putin, wearing lace and her hair in that ridiculous plait, and it’s hard not to see her as the beauty staring down King Kong.
But top of the pile, in Young’s view, is Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State. On more formal occasions, one has to admit, she could look a bit like a Star Wars character (the boots and tunics could get out of hand). Yet in general she managed to slip sartorially under the radar, and look good doing so. “I think Condoleezza Rice has in some ways set a standard,” said Giorgio Armani. Germaine Greer called her “the consummate power-dresser.” It is no small achievement to have pleased both.
It is all so different for men, of course. Yes, there are sartorial variations worth noting. Gordon Brown was mocked for being shabby. Barack Obama wears a good suit. Silvio Berlusconi dresses powerfully. Nicolas Sarkozy dresses sharply. Hugo Chávez dresses like a janitor. But this does not make anything close to the difference that it can for women in the public eye. Obviously, there are some strutting generalissimos who clearly wish this were not so—Colonel Gaddafi (below) is almost his own first lady—but they are the exceptions. There are only a few rules for male politicians: you’d never get a socialist in a double-breasted suit, and the tieless David Cameron thing stopped working when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started appearing on our television screens every day; the lack of a tie, in post-revolutionary Iran, signifying a rejection of western customs.
A strutting generalissimo: Colonel Gaddafi is “his own first lady”
Perhaps it’s the men who are missing out. While women have a whole wardrobe to deploy, male leaders must rely on a golden tie (Nick Clegg), or a flashy wristwatch (Nicolas Sarkozy’s Patek Philippe), or a cheap one (George W Bush’s Timex), or a flag badge. Imagine if they had the sartorial freedoms of women. Maybe Tony Blair would have been a style icon. Maybe, in the right frocks, we’d forgive Silvio Berlusconi his feet of clay, and take Vladimir Putin to our hearts.
Yet if we’re to admire how women in politics use their clothes to send signals, can we really say the same about them doing so to benefit their husbands? Sometimes, undeniably, there’s a distressing edge of pimpery involved: the woman who seduces the electorate for her man. Yes, I’m talking about Carla Bruni.
One forgets, but prior to marrying Nicolas she was France’s answer to Kate Moss, a jeans and see-through top sort of girl. The new Carla bloomed on her husband’s first state visit to London, a few months after they married. Remember that grey get-up, complete with Jackie Kennedy-style pillbox hat? “Carla Bruni charms UK with fashion diplomacy,” said the Daily Telegraph, before having a cold shower and a lie down. Suddenly she was all demure and bashful; an effect hampered only slightly by the fact that Christie’s was simultaneously auctioning a full-size photograph of her in the nude. Sarkozy might as well have turned up in a big red sports car.
Samantha Cameron is a good deal more respectable, but you can’t deny there’s something similar going on there. On-message to a fault; never too grand, always remembering the Zara jackets or Converse trainers to project that everywoman aura. It makes her look good, and she makes David look good. Yet historically British politicians have been admirably reticent about buying the electorate with their wives. (Normally, on these shores, it’s a sign of a politician in trouble. They called Sarah Brown “Gordon’s secret weapon” towards the end, and said the same about John Major’s wife.) Partly, this must be to do with the way the British political system inadvertently throws up practical hindrances to turning a wife into a clothes horse. Most of our recent prime ministers have not been vastly wealthy (the Camerons aside) and the British press would never forgive a wife who exploited her position to borrow designer frocks. Sarah Brown used to rent hers.
Ultimately, fashion is always intended to convey messages—truthful or otherwise—about the substance that lies behind the image. With Merkel, it is her weight as the de facto leader of Europe. With Carla Bruni, it’s that Nicolas is a complete man—clever and powerful but also masculine and physical (and not at all short). In Samantha Cameron’s case, it’s that we’re-just-a-normal-middle-class-family-like-the-rest-of-you. Yet, invariably, the clothes also get in the way of the message they are supposed to mediate. However hard Angela Merkel tries to direct us to her words and deeds as a political leader, we will still end up talking about her clothes.