British PM Theresa May gets her Annie Leibovitz moment, but not a Vogue cover

Theresa May became the first British Prime Minister to be featured in the pages of Vogue.
Theresa May became the first British Prime Minister to be featured in the pages of Vogue. PHOTO: VOGUE

LONDON (NYTimes) - Ms Theresa May may be a politician who keeps her cards close to her chest, but she has always been open about her deep love of fashion.

Wearing leopard-print shoes, tartan checks, leather jackets and stark pieces of statement jewelry, Ms May has consistently pushed the boundaries of conventional attire for female politicians. A pioneer for a new age in power dressing, she has long made a point of defying received wisdom that women should simply imitate the suit-centred uniforms of male leaders - although tweaked with a slightly brighter colour palette. In 2014, when interviewed on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs, she declared that her choice of a desert island luxury item would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

So it seemed fitting that this month Ms May became the first British Prime Minister to be featured in the United States pages of the world's best-known fashion magazine, taking part in an interview and also a glossy photo shoot by Annie Leibovitz for that magazine's April edition.

Despite an initial speculative frenzy when news of the shoot broke in January, Ms May was not the cover star. Suggestive of the diversified power axes covered by Vogue and those that appeal to its readers, that spot was taken by Selena Gomez, the most followed person on Instagram.

And the interview itself held surprises. Ms May spoke about a range of topics, such as holding President Donald Trump's hand ("he was being a gentleman," she said) and her husband's prowess in the kitchen (he makes a mean mushroom risotto). She mentioned her penchant for the US crime show NCIS and tackled the constant comparisons between her and the only other female British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

"There can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher," she said stiffly. "I'm Theresa May. I do things my way."

Still, Ms May was less punchy when it came to what she wore for the photographs, taken in January at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat. In one shot, strolling in a field with her husband, Philip, she wore a £400 (S$699) scarlet coat by Egg, with a custom cashmere sweater from Sine by Egg and a pair of her own knee-high patent leather boots by Russell & Bromley.

In another, sitting on a plush green sofa and cupping her face with one hand (sporting bright fuchsia nails), she wore a navy dress (£225 pounds, or S$393) and matching coat (£425, or S$743) by British workwear label LK Bennett, the perennial provider of nude pumps to the Duchess of Cambridge.

Some in the fashion industry might have pouted that there wasn't a higher-profile British brand in the mix - think Burberry, Mulberry or Christopher Kane. But those labels charge sky-high prices. Ms May deliberately opted to fly the flag for smaller British businesses, ones that offer more understated, and accessibly priced, options for working wardrobe chic. The clothes clearly stand for the way in which she wants her leadership to be perceived: low-key, unflashy yet alluringly slick and fully capable of getting the job done.

With personal style an increasingly powerful form of political communication, the reasons for such choices are clear. On March 29, she is expected to invoke Article 50, beginning talks for a British exit from the European Union, so May clearly wants to be perceived as someone with her feet firmly on the ground.

And despite her best efforts, her fashion tastes have created some missteps in the past. In December, she set off a row on Downing Street after wearing Amanda Wakeley "bitter chocolate" leather trousers (£955, or S$1,669) during a photo shoot for The Sunday Times Magazine. Her choice was criticised by Ms Nicky Morgan, a Conservative member of Parliament, who said she had never spent that much on a piece of clothing apart from her wedding dress.

Speaking about the episode in Vogue, Ms May remained predictably defiant: "Throughout my political career, people have commented on what I wear. That's just something that happens, and you accept that."

Ignoring British newspaper headlines suggesting that her Vogue cameo during times of such political uncertainty was self-indulgent and frivolous, she added: "It doesn't stop me from going out and enjoying fashion. And I also think it's important to be able to show that a woman can do a job like this and still be interested in clothes."