A new era in power dressing

British Prime Minister Theresa May (far left) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (left) are changing the rules about what it means to look like a prime minister or president.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (above left) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (above right) are changing the rules about what it means to look like a prime minister or president. PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, REUTERS

Over the months until the general election (and perhaps beyond), Mrs Hillary Clinton will be scrutinised in evermore exacting detail, not just for her economic platform and e-mail messages, but also for her body language, eating habits and relationships. And, yes, her clothes.

This is life in the contemporary political arena, where who a candidate is as a person - the choices she makes every day - is as picked over as her positions, in part because those are choices we all share.

Most of us do not have to decide on sanctions against Syria, or whether to try to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, but we all have to get dressed in the morning. That is the sweet spot where public politician and private person meet.

It is not an embarrassment or an affront. It is reality. And right now it is an enormous opportunity: to redefine what being a female leader means, on every level. There is finally critical mass to seize it.

For years, Dr Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, with her palette of Pantone jackets and black pants, has set the tone, tweaking the male uniform by disaggregating tops and bottoms and expanding the colour range, while keeping within a traditional framework. Effectively she was buying into the idea that for a woman to wield power in what was historically a man's world, she had to dress like a man - but brighter.

After all, the only alternative Western role model was former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. But post-power, her skirt suits, pussy-bow blouses and hair-sprayed bouffant calcified into caricature.

Now, however, between Mrs Clinton and Mrs Theresa May, Britain's new Prime Minister (and to a certain extent, Mrs Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland), two more women are in the public eye, not as spouses of world leaders, but as leaders themselves - or potential leaders. And they are, quietly but unquestionably, changing the rules about what it means to look like a president or prime minister.

Or, as Ms Ivanka Trump said at the Republican convention, "CEO of the country". Or simply chief executive officer.

It does not have to mean looking like a man in female colours.

Mrs May, who took office earlier last month, is the starkest proponent of this. She has been entirely unabashed about her own interest in fashion, especially shoes, from leopard-print kitten heels to lipstick-print ballet flats and patent leather over-the-knee boots, worn to greet the president of Mexico during a trip to Buckingham Palace.

At the Women in the World summit last October, in an interview on stage with writer Tina Brown, Mrs May said: "I'm a woman, I like clothes. One of the challenges for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is to be ourselves, and to say you can be clever and like clothes."

She told the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs that if she were cast away, her "luxury item" would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

She has refused to admit that caring about fashion is irreconcilable with caring about, say, nuclear policy, and in doing so, she is setting a precedent that allows women to use clothes to express a facet of their persona that may otherwise be denied, without it undermining expectations.

Of all of Mrs May's looks, her shoes have received the most attention. But to me, certain dresses have stood out: a navy Roland Mouret with an asymmetric neckline to speak at the Conservative Party Conference last year; a purple sheath when it was announced that she was one of two women left in the party leadership contest.

They break the traditional divide between, say, First Lady and first person (that is, Mrs Michelle Obama and Dr Merkel), in which historically First Ladies wore dresses and women in the business of governing wore, well, the pants. And the jackets.

There have been exceptions to this rule, most notably in South America, where women have held more power positions than they have in Europe and the United States. Former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez, for example, was known for her lace and floral frocks. Even so, women like embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet tend to the Merkel school of dress: a uniform of colourful jackets and straight skirts or trousers.

Indeed, you can see it in the contrast between Ms Trump, the female power player of the Trump campaign, Mrs Clinton, Mrs Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Both Ms Trump and Mrs Obama (much as they may cringe at the comparison) wore neat, roundnecked dresses during the recent conventions - Ms Trump's sleeveless, and Mrs Obama's, cap-sleeved.

Mrs Obama arguably established this model, abandoning the FirstLady-in-skirt-suits model generally adopted by both Mrs Laura and Barbara Bush as well as Mrs Nancy Reagan, and using a dress to project a less fussy, traditional persona and her right to bare arms.

But Ms Warren almost always sports a sleek jewel-toned jacket over a round-necked black shirt and black trousers. And Mrs Clinton has declared allegiance to trouser suits, the ones she settled on when she began her political career after the White House. As First Lady, she tended towards the pastel and the classic and the skirt, but when she began her Senate campaign, she wore only black trouser suits.

And though that soon gave way to tone-on-tone colours, they have become the symbol of the before and after stages in her life: from behind-the-scenes power, wife and helpmeet to candidate in her own right.

Even within this more Merkel- like continuum, though, Mrs Clinton has been branching out, wearing leather (when was the last time you saw a would-be president in leather that did not involve him standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier?) and beading, from both lesser-known names and designer labels, including Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

"I think America and the electorate are finally ready to embrace the idea of women politicians wearing something that is fun and feminine, without it being an issue," said Ms Lyn Paolo, the costume designer for Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. "It's about time. And I am really proud of her that she is trying new things."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'A new era in power dressing'. Print Edition | Subscribe