Downing Street Style

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Theresa May, we feel for you. Hadley Freeman asks why dressing for a high-powered job is still trickier than the job itself

Photos: Rex Features

“Theresa May Lets Her Clothes Do the Talking!” screamed one recent tabloid headline. Another paper commented that the Home Secretary’s “recently sharpened up wardrobe” suggested that she is “gearing up” for a leadership challenge. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton’s recent haircut has been seen by some as a clear smoke – or hair – signal that the former Secretary of State may well run for president again. “Her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention,” claimed The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose own hairstyle quite possibly sends a signal of shimmering desperation for a column idea.

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All women know that clothes can speak volumes, but whether they write entire autobiographies is a different matter. A woman’s wardrobe might make nods to some of her personal quirks – she prefers dresses to trousers, likes colour and hates black. But with the exception of, say, a nun’s wimple, few women’s work outfits give too much of an insight into their beliefs and ambitions. In most cases, they’re simply clothes.

The graphic tailored coat

“Graphique, so chic. The front bench is just like the front row and you need wow factor. This right honourable coat gets our vote”

The over-analysation of female politicians’ wardrobes is an old game. Hell, I am probably guilty of dissecting them during my time as a fashion writer on a newspaper. And it’s true; women do get to use a larger wardrobe palette than men who are restricted to the boring suit-and-tie option. Thus, when it comes to politics, where journalists are fed generic soundbites, it’s tempting for a hack to try to read the runes of a female politician’s wardrobe for signs of her true intentions. For example, Forbes magazine claimed that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “frumpy style” has been an asset to her career because “the dull outfits for which she became famous demonstrated consistence and prudence, two qualities generally prized in German politics”. Similarly, the magazine stated that the Bush administration’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “black clothes and fashion-forward cuts” turned her into “an action-figure diplomat”.

However, there comes a point when such idle speculation crosses the line into sheer sexism and that point comes when a female politician’s shoes garner more attention than her speech, as happened to May back in 2012 when she wore leopard-print shoes at the Conservative Party conference. Women might have bagged big jobs in politics, but they’re still reduced to clothes horses and haircuts. That’s because, underneath all their power and smarts, they’re just little ladies who love pretty frocks, right?

The bold blazer

“Is she turning Green? Who cares with colour-pop this on-point?”

But if it’s annoying for a woman to be reduced to her wardrobe, it becomes seriously vexatious when her clothes are built up to be more significant than she is. Most women know how irritating it is to come into work wearing a new dress and for a colleague to make some kind of tedious wink-wink insinuation that the dress must signify that she has her eye on someone new, fnar fnar. Imagine that aggravating scenario blown up to an international level and instead of it being speculation about your personal life, it becomes wild guesswork about your entire life.

Of course one could argue, as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait has, that discussing Clinton’s fashion decisions is akin to “discussing Clinton’s actions and choices.” How her haircut might reflect on what kind of president she would make, Chait does not illuminate. Nor does he explain why, if it does, we do not spend as much time fretting over male politicians’ short-back-and-sides. Yes, as I said, there is generally more to say about women’s hair and fashion than men’s, but if a haircut is such a bellwether of political intentions, surely all should be scrupulously analysed?

The statement necklace

“A delicate string of pearls is passé – go bauble big or go home”

And not just analysed – criticised. Because if a female politician’s clothing is seen as a sign of their leadership style, then clothing deemed insufficiently stylish can be taken as proof that they’re not fit to govern. While Clinton’s hairstyle might be attracting compliments now (and when was the last time you heard anyone talk about her husband’s hair, let alone Obama’s?), back when she was Secretary of State, her refusal to bother with make-up garnered her criticism for daring to look messy – gasp! – sweaty and – gasp gasp gasp! – her age.

Dress code

So clearly the answer is to dress up as smart as smart can be, right? Ah, were things that simple! Female politicians are frequently criticised if they appear to be spending too much time on their clothes or, worse, too much money. Hence the common phenomenon of young female politicians dressing as if they were over 50 instead of under 30 in an attempt to be taken more seriously by the dinosaurs who run their party. Those who dare to stand out are mocked or treated with scepticism. Former French minister Rachida Dati’s penchant for £2,000 Christian Dior dresses has been tutted over at least as much as the fact she only took five days of maternity leave when her son was born. In both cases, the inference went, she wasn’t behaving as a woman – especially a smart professional woman – ought to.

The power handbag

“George Osborne’s red budget box? Pah. Supersized androgynous briefcases are where it’s at. All those in favour say ‘mwah’”

“Here, as soon as you dress in too feminine a fashion, you get criticised,” Dati told the Daily Telegraph in February this year. “People aren’t used to seeing powerful or political women looking feminine. I think it also bothers the men because their subconscious is a little sexualised... Wearing stilettos is still a problem and if you put lipstick on, it means you’re not credible as a woman.”

So is there some kind of magical outfit that a female politician can wear that will spare her from criticism? At the moment, the favoured approach is to dress like a man in a frumpy suit – a look once considered subversive (the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were seen as headstrong and unfeminine) but now seen as safe as it hides femininity, and it’s femininity that attracts the attention, both positive and negative (and even the positive is, by insinuation, negative). Similarly, Margaret Thatcher realised an effective way to carve a distinct image while avoiding constant chatter about her clothes was to adopt a uniform. Hers was a look that deftly included enough feminine details – that handbag, those pussybows – without losing her fearsomeness. Her outfits became so predictable, such a part of the Eighties landscape, that to remark on them seemed as ludicrous as commenting on the rainy weather: ’twas always thus and there is nothing more to say.

The animal print kitten heel

“Home Sexetary! Snakeskin pumps are perfect for Wessstminssster”

But all that is really by the by. The real issue is how ridiculous it is that a high-powered accomplished woman is still judged so much on what she wears. “Yes, well done on dealing with that whole Arab Spring thing, Hillary, but could you really not put on some lippy? THANKS.”

Dati was right about the problem of sexiness: smart professional women aren’t supposed to be sexy. Sexy, feminine women are for posing in GQ, or working alongside an octogenarian male presenter on TV – but definitely not for wielding power. They’re supposed to be obedient, maybe a little bit dim and, above all, submissive (“Oh no, I can’t possibly figure out this computer on my own – can you show me what to do, powerful menfolk, you?”) whereas powerful women are still seen as bossy and strident (words never applied to men, mind), which are the diametric opposite to femininity. Of course, what this suggests is that a woman who looks attractive can’t possibly be smart, or be taken seriously. Following that logic, a woman who is attractive can’t possibly be smart because intelligence isn’t sexy. Why? I don’t know – I’m just a woman. I can’t be expected to understand such things.

The chic bob

Hillary Clinton delivers her final address as Secretary of State in January this year

Style policy

The other problem is fashion itself. Fashion is still sneered at by men as something shallow and vain, and a woman who hints that she may care about style is dismissed as a girly flossybrain. I’ve never understood why it is seen as any more superficial than, say, sport, except that fashion tends to be aimed more at women than men – and that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with men’s snarky scepticism of it, now could it? Also, it seems unlikely that a newspaper would spend half as much time commenting on a male politician’s weakness for, say, expensive watches, as was lavished upon Dati’s Dior dresses. Nor, for that matter, have I read a single word yet about the hairstyle of John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State.

That women are held to different standards than men is hardly news. But for women to still be subjected to the same standards as their predecessors from the middle of the last century is quite something. When female politicians are criticised for being underdressed, overdressed, for not making an effort or for making an effort, it’s hard not to conclude that what these critics really object to is women being politicians. So for these critics, I have constructed a guide on how to cope with the existence of female politicians:


Rachida Dati arrives at a state dinner at the ElysÉe palace in March 2009

1. Women can be powerful. Deal with it.

2. What a woman wears in no way reflects her intelligence, whether it’s Versace or a burlap sack.

3. There is no one right look for a woman, or for a woman politician.

4. Women come in all kinds of appearances. Some are scruffy, some are as glamorous as Sophia Loren. And that’s OK.

5. But if you really must write endlessly about female politicians’ clothes, at least make it equal and write about cufflinks and watches favoured by male politicians.

6. But please, don’t do that. Nobody wants that.

7. OK?

8. The end.

Be Awesome: Modern Life For Modern Ladies by Hadley Freeman is out 25 April (£12.99, 4th Estate)

Want to become a fashion writer? Click here to join our live web chat with Hadley Freeman this Friday at 1pm