Even though I have more clothes than will ever fit in my wardrobe, I sometimes still struggle to find the perfect outfit. Choosing my clothes for campus may only take a few minutes but getting ready for Cellar Door calls for at least an hour; I cannot imagine how long it would take me if the clothing I wore each day was scrutinised and reported across the front of national newspapers. Believe it or not, for many female politicians this is exactly what happens.
Earlier in the Summer I read in the news that French politician Cécile Duflot chose to wear a flowery Summer dress to the National Assembly one day. Receiving wolf whistles and shouts of “phoarrr” from her fellow politicians was definitely not what she had anticipated when choosing her clothes that morning. A political peer named Patrick Balkany even suggested that she chose to wear the dress so that nobody would listen to what she was saying! The combined reactions from the political and press world are reminiscent of the controversial words of a Toronto policeman that culminated in the organisation of the ‘Slutwalk’ protests in 2011. By stating that women should “avoid dressing like sluts” in order to prevent rape, he suggested that women are somehow asking to be attacked if they dress provocatively. However, Why on earth did Duflot’s outfit choice cause such reactions? Apart from a relatively big ‘love it or hate it’ flower print there was nothing especially shocking about the dress!
France is not alone; British female politicians face similar attention to their wardrobe. In 2007, then home secretary Jacqui Smith wore a low cut top when delivering a speech to the Commons about the recent terror attacks. Failing to note the significance of her speech, the press and her fellow politicians immediately focussed on her exposed bosom. For the record, the cleavage on show would hardly be deemed shocking in comparison to the flesh usually on show at Thursday Rococo’s. Why it should come as such a shock to the house and the press that she possessed a pair of breasts is beyond me. I know the House of Commons is dominated by males, but surely they can recognise a woman when they see one!
In researching for this article I read a particularly scathing blog post about Theresa May’s jewellery choices. It suggested that a woman in her political position should not be wasting time in choosing jewellery when she should be running the country. I wholeheartedly disagree with this opinion; Members of Parliament may be representatives of their constituencies and of our nation but they are still individuals in their own right and that should be recognised. I cannot deny that I probably know more about Teresa May’s taste in shoes than I do about her advocated policies; she is indeed a unique MP and her penchant for designer shoes could rival any socialites. However I would argue that it is better that she is known, than not known at all. Moreover, as the current Minister for Women and Inequalities in government, May’s attention to her appearance and wardrobe shows her interest in something that is very important to many women.
Why should women in politics get judged on what they wear? What significance does a woman’s appearance bear on her role as a political figure and why should her personal wardrobe choices either help or hinder her career? Throughout history, it is clear that royalty and politicians have frequently used clothing as a way of demonstrating their power and status. When did this trend reverse? It now seems that women have to suppress their freedom of expression through their clothing in order to be taken seriously by the political world.
I am not suggesting that the Parliamentary rules on dress code should be completely abolished. I personally wouldn’t dream of rocking up to the Houses of Parliament in a pair of sequinned hot pants and a bright pink crop top, no matter the style guidelines. I do believe, however, that both the political and press world need to re-evaluate their views towards the role of fashion in politics. Why should women and men be taken any less seriously if they choose to dress themselves in something other than an uninspiring black suit? There are plenty of examples of women that can dress fashionably and maintain the respect of their peers.
Kate Middleton is the prime example of a woman who dresses respectably and professionally while maintaining a fashionable identity. Although she is not an overtly political figure, her actions are every bit as important and reported. Moreover, in choosing to promote British designers and clothing brands she has done more for the British fashion industry than the government can ever hope to do. There is even an app that is now dedicated to finding where to buy anything she is seen wearing – ‘Kate’s Style List’ if anyone is interested!
To reference a common phrase; “If you can’t beat em’, join em’!”. The media is a huge force to be reckoned with and as much as I think it is wrong that they scrutinise the image of politicians I think this is unlikely to change any time soon. The attention that the British press – and indeed the world press – locate on wardrobe choices can also be seen as another opportunity for politicians to make a statement. Margaret Thatcher is the prime example of a woman who recognised the importance of her appearance and used it to her advantage. She exemplifies the term
Whether or not it is right, the fact that politicians are judged on how they present themselves is evident. Even if we are unable to change this fact, at least we can recognise this as a power and use it to our advantage. So next time you are choosing your outfit, I hope you too consider the political statement you can send.