Powerful women and their fashion choices

What’s that you say? You’re going to write about powerful women, but instead of focussing on their achievements, you’re going to focus on their looks?! Surely this is sexism incarnate!

While it’s true that more column inches than are warranted by the subject have been expended on the clothing choices (or as my friends and I used to say, the sartorial elections) of the female great and good, I won’t simply be asking what their favourite designers are – this, as Hillary says, is not a question one would ever ask of a man in the same position.

However, there is clearly something so important about what women wear that it ignites such frenzies as the ‘burqa ban’ in France, the creepy American uber-Christians’ prohibition of necklines lower than two finger-widths below the collarbone (to which I say, get your measuring fingers away from my chest – or in fact use a ruler), and the so-called ‘slut walk’.

Is there a correlation between what powerful women wear and their public perception, how seriously they are taken, how respected they are? Let’s find out.

 

Angela Merkel

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Retrieved here

I’m sorry Ange, but this is how I feel about your outfits. It’s always the same drab colour of buttoned, lapelled jacket plus equally boring trouser combo that just hurts my eyes. And yet she’s Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2015 and Forbes’ Most Powerful Woman. What does this tell us? Apart from the obvious, that she doesn’t define herself by making sure her looks accord with whatever fashion standard is currently in vogue; and that neither do we. Is it in fact that the less someone appears to care about their appearance, the more we are led to believe they are full of substance (and therefore worthy to lead a country/company)? Her clothes are as unremarkable as David Cameron’s suits. I was exaggerating when I said they hurt my eyes. There’s in fact not a lot to say about them. Which means we can swiftly move past what she’s wearing to what she’s actually doing (which is beyond the scope of this post).

 

Hillary Clinton

Now Clinton is trying to get elected, which means the spin doctors are hard at work. In many ways she and Merkel dress quite similarly: lots of the same buttoned-up skirt-suit, or pantsuit. Yet for some reason Clinton feels a little more on point, whether it’s down to the sharp tailoring, the colours, or this not at all typical mother of the bride number:

She and her PR team seem to have set her up as a serious politician with an injection of personality.

 

Christine Lagarde

I think this is our best-dressed woman so far. Is it because her position as head of the International Monetary Fund doesn’t rely on pleasing the populace and she has therefore no need of a stylist or a spin doctor? Or is it because she’s French, and obviously the French are just more stylish than us? I won’t be borrowing all of her outfits, but I would definitely wear this pink jacket to work; and she has an enviable collection of Hermes scarfs (look at the cute puffed sleeves!):

Lagarde is a top lawyer and now top (near-)politician. I like the fact that this powerful woman a. doesn’t care about her age (no hair dye), b. dresses nicely, and c. does not erase her femininity – which one feels the two above do slightly.

 

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl already had a great career before becoming a household name after writing Lean In. She writes about the unconscious biases that weigh against women in the workplace, accounting for their inability (sometimes) to reach the top of their profession. None of those biases, if I recall rightly, were to do with their clothing choices. Maybe everyone she’s ever worked with has been less judgemental than I am.

Sheryl has a younger look than the above three; she rocks a bodycon dress, but rarely does it show more than the lower half of her legs and arms or much cleavage. And rarely is it particularly eye-catching. The bodycon makes it clear she’s a woman. But the dresses are simple, no frills or flowers; there’s nothing so remarkable that we aren’t immediately re-drawn to her face and to what comes out of her mouth. Again, does the effacement of her outward appearance allow us to take her more seriously?

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Retrieved here

 

Michelle Obama

Perhaps because she does not herself hold the reigns of power, she’s able to dress a bit more interestingly, adding bright colours, patterns, and a bit of couture.

obama
Retrieved here

Would we think differently of this daywear if worn in Parliament? Hemlines are resolutely on the knee, but the sleeveless open tops are a teensy bit more suggestive than the stocky pantsuits mentioned above. I relish the injection of personality and fun here, and I don’t think it detracts from M.O.’s presentation as an accomplished person. I think it just says: I’m the kind of woman who dances around with old people and hosts Easter Egg hunts in the White House garden.

 

Beyoncé

Mama said, “You’re a pretty girl.

What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter

Brush your hair, fix your teeth.

What you wear is all that matters.”

[…]

Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst

Perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts, pretty hurts

Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst

We try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see

It’s the soul that needs the surgery

[…]

Blonder hair, flat chest

TV says, “Bigger is better.”

South beach, sugar free

Vogue says, “Thinner is better.”

My thesis so far has been that powerful women do not dress to emphasise their appearance, do not dress to show off their bodies, or to draw attention to themselves. They, perhaps, do not need to, as their actions and thoughts speak for themselves, or they wish them to. Now Beyoncé is as talented and successful in her field, has the influence and power provided by a huge following gained through exercising her talents, and yet famously does show off her body. What’s different?

I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that the music industry is famously ‘appearance-ist’, in the sense that stars have to appeal to their fans not just through their talents – and sometimes appeal despite their lack of them. Why else was Susan Boyle such a ‘surprise star’? So, just as it’s very clear to me that a ‘clean’, ‘family-friendly’ image is crucial to get a politician elected, it’s obvious that some measure of Beyoncé’s popularity is down to the image that she has cultivated, as well as to her talents. I think that can still be true even though her main following is not necessarily lustful straight men, since she seems to be primarily loved by women.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to find a discord between ‘pretty hurts’, ‘women run the world’, ‘men aren’t irreplaceable’, ‘if I were a boy I’d be less disadvantaged’, and the writhing-around-wearing-very-little in the rather explicit ‘Drunk in Love’ video. And since Jay-Z (the purported object of the song) partakes not of the writhing but rocks up halfway through in a t-shirt and backwards cap, I’d suggest that ‘Drunk in Love With My Own Bootylicious Bod’ might be a more accurate title. Is Beyonce the ‘best thing you never had’ because it turns out she looks great in a low-cut wedding dress, oh and in her wedding lingerie too? Why does Jay-Z ft. Ten Gold Chains get to hang out like a normal person while Queen B shakes pretty much every loose bit of flesh in our faces? No one even has the possibility of objectifying him.

Beyoncé famously controls her image tightly. Everything described above is the result of her choice. Yet if you accept a cover shoot for Vogue, but decline to make your voice heard in a corresponding interview, aren’t you just giving license to the public to pay attention to your image and nothing else?

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all, of her widespread acclaim as a great feminist, empowerer of us poor women all over (for which bland statements about equal pay being important, unfortunately, don’t really cut it), who healthily celebrates her sexuality as we all should. So here are some other perspectives from some other people that I guess could be true:

  • “the rest of the [BEYONCE] album is an unashamed celebration of the very physical virtues, and the ultimate fulfillment of sexuality they inevitably bring” – here
  • What does feminism mean? “For Beyoncé, it means profiting off the beauty and labor of your own body unselfconsciously and marketing your likeness strategically.” – here
  • Pointing out objectification is not the same as shaming women for being sexual, which is why feminism distinguishes between the objectifier and the objectified. […] But when it comes to female pop stars, they are both the objectifier and the objectified. More titillation than sexual liberation, their performances add to society’s perception of women as eye candy” – here

And then this popped up:

time headline.PNG

Now that last phrase didn’t make it into the Time article, but for a minute I think it embodied what I feel about this person, the problematic notion that feminism needs to be sexy to be successful, in other words that everything, absolutely everything, must be subordinate to being sexy, that ‘what’s in our head’ doesn’t in fact matter unless our appearance proclaims us to be sex objects before anything else.

Sigh.

 

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai does not hold political power either, but her appearance could hardly be more different to Beyoncé’s. She wears ‘modest’ dress, covering up arms and legs and most of her hair (even wearing a headscarf in hospital!). Where it could be argued that a politician’s appearance, or your boss’ appearance, influences your opinion of them for better or for worse and therefore impacts their standing and indeed their power, what Malala wears is really completely irrelevant to what she has done. If anything, it shows that you can be socially conservative or traditional or religious, and at the time support important values and equal opportunities – a fact which escapes many people. I don’t find it necessary that one covers one’s head to preserve one’s modesty, although I don’t think it disadvantages her. In fact, with the bright colours and the fun patterns, I think she looks rather nice.

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The Queen

Alright, so her political power is only nominal, and alright, she barely exercises that huge media power she does have through any partisan statements. And as a ninety-year-old woman she hardly has to deal with that agonising decision over whether to dress sexily or to dress professionally. And while I can’t say I’d ever buy a coat-dress, which all the royal women and no other people in the world seem to favour, at least she reps the bright colours:

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Conclusion

Why do people care so much about women’s appearance and so little about men’s? Yes, this is probably a form of sexism. It’s probably sexist that if you compare Mary Beard and David Attenborough, figures of approximately equal age and stature, you will not find it remarkable that David doesn’t wear makeup, pluck his eyebrows or dye his hair, and yet it has famously been found remarkable that Mary doesn’t. It’s probably sexist that the most common form of women’s appearance to feature in the media, in advertising and on television, is its most sexualised, photoshopped, and idealised form. There just has never been an expectation that men will gyrate around poles and wave their half-exposed bums in our faces – we’d think it ridiculous if they did. And yet for all that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain that men are sexually repressed.

Now think about why we wear clothes in the first place. Once Adam and Eve took a chunk out of that Golden Delicious, the scales fell from their eyes: suddenly they were able to do bad things, which meant that suddenly they realised that their naked bodies could be exploited by others, which meant that suddenly they needed to wear clothes, to shield their vulnerability from others’ problematic view. It’s a neat symbolic explanation for why it’s so counterintuitive to wear clothes that put our bodies back into the ‘exploitable’ zone.

We’re imperfect, which unfortunately means that we will judge books by covers. If someone’s appearance is particularly striking, or if their body is particularly on show, our attention will probably stop right there, and we will be distracted from going any further towards finding out what that person is really like. Our sartorial election can effect many things: it can represent us as whole people with inner selves, allowing our viewers to give proportionate attention to our character as well as our outer shell; it can pronounce us as part of a cultural group (headscarves or goth clothing spring to mind); it can represent us as other than ourselves: as sex objects, as dolls, as having more pronounced cheekbones than we really do (thanks, contouring), as aggressive (frown and swagger), even as less than human (sackcloth and bare feet). Beyonce knows the power of this kind of symbolic imagery; just look at her ‘Formation’ video.

Character is harder to get at than appearance, but with our limited attention span and addiction to instant gratification, that’s all the mass media is going to feed us. The various media are all competing for our attention, so the look of a person whose clothing shows skin before character will be prioritised to hook us in (and we fall for it). Politicians and top businesspeople are not immune from the pressures of mass media-type consumption, but it’s encouraging that the likes of Angela, Sheryl, Christine, Malala, Hillary, Michelle and their ilk are bucking the trend. Not forgetting Her Maj. Long live not making feminism sexy.

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