Friday, 12 April 2013

Are female politicians reduced to what they wear?

Margaret Thatcher's outfits sold on auction last year

The death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday has prompted a schism in the UK between lauding tribute and sceptical criticism. While Baroness Thatcher is a particularly extreme example, one can normally expect the death of a former Prime Minister to result in this kind of media coverage. However, mixed in with all this has been a surprising number of articles, slideshows, blogposts and features examining the Iron Lady's taste in clothing.

I am in two minds on this. On one hand, I can't help but think of Hillary Clinton's response in 2010 to being asked which fashion designers she preferred: "Would you ever ask a man that question?" It strikes me that, had any of our other previous PMs died (all of them of course being male), nobody would be paying nearly so much attention to his style.

Of course, there is a practical reason for this: men don't wear anything as varied as women. On hearing of Margaret Thatcher's death, Boris Johnson said "Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today’s politics." As well as a political statement, his comment also reflects the fact that male political figures wear what is pretty much a uniform, with the only difference being the colour of their ties. I also think it's an unavoidable aspect of our society that more attention will be paid to women's clothes than men's.

But could we be in danger of overlooking a woman's political achievements in favour of her wardrobe? I think our obsession with what women in power wear is similar to what Hilary Mantel recently tried to point out about Kate Middleton, though she was immediately met with a torrent of defensive articles (most of them written by people who hadn't actually read her piece). If you perform a quick Google News search on the Duchess of Cambridge, it will yield a round of articles concerning one of the following topics: a) what she is wearing b) what she is going to name her baby c) where she is currently appearing or where she is visiting next. Do you notice how only one of these really attempts to view her as a thinking being rather than an object for viewing? And even that focusses on her ability to reproduce. She is viewed in terms of her appearance and her function as a mother, not in terms of her thoughts, opinions or emotions.

To a lesser extent, this is also the case for female politicians. Try the same thing with Yvette Cooper or Theresa May and most of the results will be about their activities in politics, but there is still a preoccupation with their fashion choices, which will never come up if you search David Cameron or Ed Miliband. The truth is that women seem to be inevitably under more pressure to ensure that their public appearance is just right than their male counterparts.

Or are they? I find myself thinking of this clip from The Adjustment Bureau in which a Congressman talks about needing focus groups to establish the correct amount of scuffing on a shoe and the right colour for a tie. Men need to pay just as much attention to what they wear, it's just that the media never notices unless they get it badly wrong. Women's clothing, however, are analysed by the press whether they get it right or wrong.

I'm not saying we should stop looking at what politicians wear. In fact, I think it's a highly interesting topic, as it is one of the biggest ways in which fashion can make a difference in our culture. But perhaps it's time to stop analysing what women wear just because they're women. And hey, maybe we could have a look at what the men are wearing. For once, let's establish what brand of shirt Boris Johnson has on today and what that says about him.

Oh, and if any male politicians are reading - jazz things up and wear a bowtie or something. Seriously. Stop being so boring.


Shug Avery said...

Such an interesting post ! I agree with you about the fact that female politicians have more pressure and are judged much more for their appearance than male politicians. On Twitter I was actually pretty surprised to see so many mentions of Ms. Thatcher's wardrobe.
There are few bloggers that actually points this thing out hence my invitation to read a section written by a friend of mine on my blog regarding female politicians and their wardrobe :

I really appreciate your blog for the very sensed content you produce and the things I learn each time I am reading it :D.

Shug Avery of Incognito

Sarah said...

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for people to notice and comment about what female politicians are wearing. I would actually argue that there’s a lot more pressure for a woman in politics to dress like a man so that she is taken seriously, so it’s both interesting and noteworthy when a woman chooses to express herself in a more effeminate way rather than try to blend in. It’s certainly nothing new. I’ve seen many a collection or representation of wardrobes of former first ladies either on the national or state level. I’m rather inspired by women like the Iron Lady, Michele Obama, and Sarah Palin who are feminine, stylish, and strong leaders. In fact, I read an article last week about how Margaret Thatcher was once recognized on a Best Dressed list, and she commented that it was one of the proudest moments in her life.

And I do think that, although a man’s choice in dress isn’t noticed as much, it is certainly noticeable when he does something wrong. Think of Donald Trump’s toupee and orange complexion, Governor Rick Perry’s severely high, starched collars, or during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when he wore relaxed cardigans when the country was in a time of crisis (i.e. not the image you want to portray when your country needs a strong, assertive leader – cue Ronald Reagan).

I aspire to run for office one day, and as a woman, I would hope to come across as both intelligent and chic, something that is not always achieved by women in power.

Highland Fashionista said...

Great post! this is the age-old discussion that we women will always have to endure. What saddens me is when I see a woman dressing in an unflattering or masculine way in an attempt to be "taken seriously" professionally. I do think it is possible to be stylish and still kick some ass at work.

Oh, and I just added you to my Bloglovin feed. :)

Mega said...

Love this post! It's frustrating to see the stark difference between the treatment of male and female politicians and other media figures. I feel like the media tends to see women as women first, whereas men are typically seen primarily as the role they play i.e. a senator, a lawyer, a mechanic. And so I think it's very true that women have to work harder to be taken seriously.

-Mega from

Dani said...

Firstly, congrats on Links a la mode!
I think your right inn saying that we don't take notice of what male politicans are wearing, because they just don't wear anything as interesting as the female ones. Perhaps someone that is not so interested in politics could end up reading about a political woman figure, with the intial interest being in her clothing, but will then learn more about their politcal work. So it could be also a way to introduce more people to them. But that is not to say what they are wearing should over shadow their work.
Great post.
Love Dani xx