When politician meets fashion icon

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • When Prime Minister Theresa May touched down in China for a summit of major nations last week, Britain's Telegraph newspaper zeroed in on her diplomatic ace in the hole. Her formidable policy acumen? Her tough stance on Chinese investment in sensitive British industries?

Nope. It was "the vivid, almost-orange hue of Mrs May's jacket and dress". The story - only days after the same paper ran a piece about shoes being the "greatest love" of her life - illustrated how the halls of power are turning into something of a catwalk for Britain's first female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.

Mrs May's embrace of high-end, even edgy clothes in a manner very unlike, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is transforming her into a relatively rare mix: politician meets fashion icon.

Photogenic Magazine - offering Sri Lanka's latest in fashion news - tweeted that "Prime Minister Theresa May loves her leopard-print shoes". The New York Times ran an entire article on Chinese "fashionistas" discussing "her shoes, her gender and her power, in that order". And then there's the British media, which like no other has unleashed the dogs to chew on her trademark kitten heels. Or, if you're The Times of London, a chest-accentuating scarlet dress of hers is dubbed "the boobinator" for showing off what it described as "power cleavage". "Is Britain's new prime minister, Theresa May, the country's most fashion-savvy politician?" the Times asked its readers.

With Mrs May constantly living under the threat that the odd reporter might blurt out "Who are you wearing?" during doorsteps at No. 10 Downing Street, perhaps it is no surprise that the fixation on her wardrobe has also sparked a fierce debate. In short, is coverage of her clothes sexist?

Mrs May has made no secret of her penchant for high fashion. She has been photographed in the front row of runway shows and, in 2014, she famously told a British radio programme that the one luxury she'd want on a desert island is a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

Mrs May has made no secret of her penchant for high fashion. She has been photographed in the front row of runway shows and, in 2014, she famously told a British radio programme that the one luxury she'd want on a desert island is a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

But the blanket focus on her style choices is morphing, some say, into an unhealthy obsession that is wholly unlike the media's treatment of her male predecessor.

The sexism, critics argue, particularly shines through when everyone becomes a critic. Like when the Daily Mail told her to trade in her "thigh-high patent boots, mini skirts and daring short dresses" for the more lady-like attire of Catherine Middleton. Or when the same paper had this to say about that "boobinator" scarlet dress: "It's not just the economy plunging into the red", with a shot of Mrs May's decolletage. "What is telling about May's penchant for fashion is why we care so much - and more so why we criticise it so readily," columnist Imogen Fox wrote in The Guardian. "Would we condemn a similarly frivolous preoccupation in a male leader? It will be interesting to see whether May is allowed to continue to freely enjoy clothes or whether her advisers will judge her fashion to be too loud."

Many others say that Mrs May is a trailblazer, a woman successfully walking the tightrope of a world leader with gravitas who also happens to love fashion. If people talk about her shoes during her first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (and they did), then so be it. In fact, she has defended her right to style, declaring it one of the hurdles women of power must overcome.

"I'm a woman, I like clothes. I like shoes, I like clothes," she said last year in an interview with writer and journalist Tina Brown. "One of the challenges I think for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is actually to be ourselves, and to say, you know what, you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes. These are not separate."

Is it newsworthy that she launched her bid for prime minister in a tartan Vivienne Westwood suit? Or that she attends meetings in L.K. Bennett pumps? Some say yes - because it's disingenuous to suggest that impressions are not part of a political package.

When Mrs Hillary Clinton - who once joked that a show about her fashion sense would be called Project Pantsuit - wears an Armani jacket to a speech, some say that it is indeed notable. Especially if that jacket retails for US$12,000 (S$16,400) and the theme of the night is inequality.

"Every politician, male or female, attracts attention as visible people. Every utterance or haircut will be parsed by journalists and I think it's fair," said Sarah Mower, chief critic for the Vogue Runway website. "You can look at other female politicians and see that Hillary hasn't played it safe. She's played it all over and she definitely had her moments in the way Theresa May has."

In fact, fashion can be a formidable political accessory as Mrs Thatcher proved with her famous leather handbags. Far from a stereotyping symbol of feminine softness, her stern satchels became metaphors for toughness, "a weapon", the BBC once wrote, "wielded against opponents or unfortunate ministers". And Mrs May's cutting-edge clothes - say some on the other side of the political aisle - may equally have the ability to intimidate.

Mr Keith Vaz, a senior politician from the opposition Labour Party, was the head of Britain's Home Affairs Select Committee until he resigned this week in the wake of a sex scandal.

In an earlier interview, he said he was so in awe of Mrs May's style that he would go out and buy a new tie to prepare for her appearances before the committee.

The result, he said, was 24 appearances and 24 new ties. "I think that may have been the first question I asked her - 'Do you think there is an unhealthy interest in your clothes?'" he said.

"She is very unflashy and she doesn't make a fuss, but I think her clothes do show her to be a very classy, intelligent political leader. But clothes are a side issue to the job and she knows it."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'When politician meets fashion icon'. Print Edition | Subscribe