Book Review – Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion

“Most of us realize that politicians have a unique talent,” British fashion editor Annalisa Barbieri claimed. “Give them an outfit or a sentence, and they put it together in the most convoluted, illogical and unattractive way possible.” The matronly frumpiness of female political figures, with their dreary clothing choices (power suits with shoulder pads, the ubiquitous string of pearls) has rarely made first ladies and female politicians trendsetters.

Robb Young argues in Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion that this perception is rapidly changing. A fashion journalist for the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, and British Vogue online, Young says that now, feeling less pressure to blend in with dark-suited males (those shoulder pads did serve a purpose), political women are expressing themselves through clothing like never before.

Today the media report on political women’s style in the breathless manner used for supermodels and actresses. But where the clothing choices of male politicians are rarely more complicated than the colour of their ties, women “take a gamble” no matter what outfit they choose.

A female public figure who doesn’t put effort into her style is criticized for being slovenly and dull, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Karl Lagerfeld: “The cut of her trouser is not good.”) If she puts in too much effort, she’s a frivolous spendthrift, disconnected from the problems of real people, like former Spanish Vice-President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega Sanz, whose every outfit was documented on a website which questioned how she could afford them on her official salary. The memory of Imelda Marcos, who, after her husband was deposed as President of the Philippines, was found to own 1,060 pairs of shoes, haunts all political wardrobes.

Fashion is still an unspoken “f-word” in the world of politics. None of the subjects of Young’s profiles agreed to participate. This forced him to find unconventional interviewees, such as local designers from their countries, other fashion journalists, and people who worked for the women, such as Sarah Palin’s stylist during the 2008 U.S. election, who describes the difficulty of glamming up the former Governor of Alaska without ruining her folksy appeal.

While his topic is appearances, Young’s analysis is not superficial. He includes such controversial figures as activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Saddam Hussein’s wife Sajida (current whereabouts unknown) and three of South African President Jacob Zuma’s five wives. Fascinating details abound. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright matched her jeweled brooches to her moods (a turtle for when trips were going slow, a spider when she wanted to look tough). Rebiya Kadeer, an activist for the Uighur people, always wears a traditional square doppa skullcap, which the Chinese government takes as a direct affront. Embattled former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, known for her blonde braided crown, was forced to unfurl and redo her hairstyle on national TV to prove she did it herself.

Looking stylish may help some women, but for others looking unfashionable is an asset: President of Finland Tarja Halonen’s clothes never fit properly, but her dowdiness matches her down-to-earth personality and is beloved by the Finnish people.

Fashion provides an original entry into the messy complexity of world politics, and Young gives it the intelligence, style, and wit it deserves. If he could be faulted for not developing stronger arguments, it’s due to the breadth and intricacies of his chosen topic.

A book that places former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whose coif was so firm that she emerged from IRA bombings un-mussed) directly next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s wife Azam Al Sadat Farahi (little seen behind her black chador) demonstrates that, different as they may be, female political figures have at least two things in common. They all get dressed in the morning and what they wear, be it white pearls or a black scarf, will be noticed.

Earlier on this blog I argued that when we obsess about women politician’s clothes we prevent them from achieving equal footing with men. Robb Young offers another take: that political women, because of their wider sartorial choices, have a better opportunity to establish their background, values and personality through their clothes. But they must be careful: the world of fashion, like the world of politics, is very rarely simple.

Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion by Robb Young, Merrell, 2011
reviewed by Max Mosher
photography by Samantha Walton

8 thoughts on “Book Review – Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion

  1. Max, this is an amazing review. I love how the intersection between politics and fashion has become your “beat”. I want more!!! MORE I SAY.

  2. Really interesting! As you say, we often think of the way female politicians are marginalized when they fashion choices are discussed and they are relegated to the old-fashioned ‘women’s pages’ (call it ‘Life’, if you want to, we still recognize that it isn’t a discussion of policy, or an equitable treatment as men would expect) of newspapers. But the semiotics of their fashion choices sounds like interesting reading. What are they saying, or not saying, with their self-expression through clothing choice?

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Fascinating post, Max! Did you ever see the clip of Hillary Clinton and her self-described “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits” at the 2008 Democratic convention? Cuz it’s amazing.

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