In the Spotlight: Body Politics and The Iron Lady

Every politician has to decide how much he or she is prepared to change manner and appearance for the sake of the media. It may sound grittily honourable to refuse to make any concessions, but such an attitude in a public figure is most likely to betray a lack of seriousness about winning power - Thatcher in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years

While The Iron Lady certainly isn’t the only biopic of Margaret Thatcher (she’s been played by both Andrea Riseborough and Lindsay Duncan in the past, amongst others), it’s undoubtedly the most high profile. With Meryl Streep winning a Golden Globe and its Oscar-tipped success, it has revived a contentious era of British politics and at the head of this most acrimonious body politic sits the problematic figure of Thatcher herself. Curiously, in the wake of Phyllida Lloyd’s recent film, Thatcher – icon of individualistic 80s greed, privatisation and anti-union policies – is being reappraised. This is being met with both outrage on the left (Guardian) and a kind of joyful relief on the right (Telegraph). But neither of these reactions is as infuriating as the style coverage on how to get the ‘True Blue’ Thatcher look. Despite the fact that her ‘look’ was anachronistic at the time (as pointed out by Fashion Junior at Large), the idea that British women would blindly appropriate the clothing of one of the most divisive politicians – male or female – of the post-war period is as offensive as it is shortsighted.

Peacocks – which has recently gone into administration – with their Thatcher-inspired moodboard. Found at Fashion Editor at Large.

Frustratingly, it’s often laziness on the part of fashion editors who have become reliant on film releases to create a hook for weekly style features. It’s not too much of a stretch to find replacements for the items they want to push: if it’s pussy-bows you could try Jane Fonda in 9 to 5  or the queen of flouncy blouses, Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers. And if you’re really adamant that it’s 80s tailoring and pearls you want then look no further than Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl (1988).

Jane Fonda in 9 to 5, Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl

I have written before about the dangers of ignoring politics in favour of aesthetics. But the fashion industry likes to reappropriate subjects as its own, ignoring any overtly political or social issues – remember Steven Meisel’s oil slick shoot for Vogue Italia? Or the poverty/luxury debate sparked by this Vogue India fashion shoot? How about homelessness at Antidote magazine which successfully forged a real-life Derelicte?The lack of social responsibility within the industry is at best misguided and at worst sickening. The issues underlying such images need to be addressed, and ignoring this is unforgivable, no matter how pretty the pictures.

Let them eat Blahniks: The Marie Antoinette of the Phillipines, Imelda Marcos’s shoes are the ultimate modern day symbol of fashion excess and power. Now found at the Footwear Museum of Marikina

Thatcher formed a murky backdrop to my childhood, always looming in the shadows like a Harpy of Greek mythology (which are conveniently also known as ‘that which snatches’). My father was ardently left-wing, to the point where as a teenager I spent certain weekends avoiding the town centre where he was dressed as the ‘Capitalist Fat Cat’ (complete with pointy ears and tail) while selling the Socialist Worker. As you can imagine, Thatcher didn’t go down too well in our household and as a result I’m finding the flurry of opinion pieces, style guides and ‘what she meant to me’ features quite hard to stomach.

But fashion editors aren’t the only group to reclaim female politicians for their own sartorial ends. The politics of bodies denotes that women in power are judged by their looks and appearance far more than their male peers. Thatcher biopics from The Iron Lady to Margaret and The Long Walk to Finchley all feature her image change (losing the hats and adopting more suits) as a pivotal moment in her career. Current male PR-spun politicians of the Blair/Cameron ilk clearly see image as important, but the emphasis on appearance as the defining aspect of this unfortunately remains a female preserve.

Somewhat ironically in this Guardian piece that criticises Mensch’s alleged surgery they’ve commissioned one of the most air-brushed pictures of Mensch in existence

The idea of dressing for success is nothing new, so it continues to surprise me when clothing choices are consistently used to undermine female politicians. Women are chastised on both sides of the political and style spectrums: Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel are both regularly criticised for their dress sense (too dowdy), while Louise Mensch* and former-beauty queen Sarah Palin are condemned for being too image-conscious. (Clearly that’s not the only criticism one could levy at Sarah Palin. But it’s where a lot of people like to start.) Not to mention Theresa May’s animal print shoes which have been stealing headlines for a decade. And it doesn’t help when other women get in on the action. Mary Portas recently called the four women in Cameron’s cabinet ‘an ugly bunch’ in need of a make over. Ann Coulter, the only female in history to be more gun-loving, racially-paranoid and far-right than Sarah Palin credits her success to her cheerleader looks, claiming, “I am emboldened by my looks to say things Republican men wouldn’t.” While Jane Law, costume designer for The Iron Lady, makes the hideous distinction between intelligence and fashion, claiming Thatcher “had other priorities. She was very cerebral.”

Katherine Langley, a congresswoman in the 1920s whose blue and red dress caused a scandal in the House of Representatives, with a reporter claiming, “she offends the squeamish by her unstinted display of gypsy colors on the floor.” From Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion found at Forbes

The wives of powerful men are also in the firing line; Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama use their much-lauded fashion credentials to further their husband’s campaigns, whereas the sartorial choices of MPs’ husbands is rarely, if ever, called into question. Where male politicians are concerned, the majority of coverage can be boiled down to the tongue-in-cheek reporting over Rick Santorum’s love of the tank top. And of course there’s nothing like the flamboyance of a dictator to raise eyebrows; the decision of Mobutu (former dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to ban everyone except himself from wearing leopard print hats didn’t get nearly as much coverage as it deserved, while Gaddafi fashion was often just a stone’s throw from the style spotlight. The Arab Spring really has turned international politics into a much greyer world.

Indira Gandhi’s saris were made from khadi, a fabric imbued with political significance in the fight against British rule when workers were encouraged to weave their own cloth as an aid to economic empowerment. From Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion found at Forbes

Robb Young addresses these issues in his book Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion, celebrating the sartorial choices of female leaders throughout history and demonstrating that clothing can be used to uphold beliefs and signify strength and unity, rather than merely becoming tabloid fodder. And I look forward to the day that his statement in Forbes that, “the right fashion on the right politician in the right circumstances can be mighty powerful political currency” gets recognition from male MPs too.

Benazir Bhutto compromised her wardrobe when she became Pakistan’s first female prime minister, trading western-style clothes for the salwar kameez (tunic and trouser suit) with a draped head scarf, instead of the burqa as favoured by her predecessor. From Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion found at Forbes

The problems with Thatcherism and her reign are manifold. High on the list would be Section 28, her refusal (along with Reagan) to boycott the apartheid regime in South Africa, financial deregulation (that has since led to the banking crisis), the rise in childhood poverty and decrease in social mobility; and this was while she was in power (the notorious milk snatching happened 8 years before she even became PM). It’s the nature of humanity to be nostalgic and revel in the retro, which is why 22 years after she left office the time seems ripe (for some) to reappraise Thatcher and all that she stood for. But this will never be an easy transition with someone so divisive, which could be why the campaign against a state funeral is gaining such momentum; as someone who was committed to ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ it seems grossly unjust that the taxpayer should foot the bill. For those interested, you can sign a petition here or here.

*On Women’s Hour Louise Mensch derided criticisms of her controversial GQ shoot, condemning the reaction as sexist; arguing that Cameron, Clegg and other male MPs are professionally styled for similar features and it’s unfair that this goes unnoticed. I’m not a huge fan of Mensch but this is a salient point.

About Amber Jane

Amber Jane Butchart has had a lifelong love affair with dressing up and has turned this obsession into a career as a fashion historian, writer and broadcaster. She is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, where she lectures across a number of areas concerning fashion, the body and contemporary culture, from the impact of blogging on fashion media to fashion and the grotesque. Shot by Vogue as a girl with great British style and a featured fashion historian on various BBC productions, her interest in antique clothing was ignited by working as Head Buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro. Her blog, Theatre of Fashion, tracks current trends through history to reveal the secrets of our sartorial past. She has contributed to productions for BBC 1 & 2, BBC Learning, Radio 4, Channel 4 and Sky Arts, from the Breakfast News to Making History and Woman's Hour. She also presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum looking at issues concerning the clothed body in fashion and performance, and for 5 years she was a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN. As the red-haired half of the Sony-nominated Broken Hearts DJ duo she co-hosts a weekly radio show on Jazz FM that celebrates inter-war culture and the trends that the era continues to influence from fashion to food, film and literature; and as live DJs they have graced stages across the globe for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber has also lectured and sat on panels at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library and SHOWstudio.
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9 Responses to In the Spotlight: Body Politics and The Iron Lady

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a brilliant post. Thanks for articulating specifically why the reappraisal of Thatcher is so frustrating. But also really understanding the sexism writ large of how women in power are undermined by the way their bodies, clothing choices and looks are discussed. It’s rare to read such useful analysis of the role clothes and fashion play in our lives, I’ll definately be returning to read more of your stuff.

  2. Alice says:

    Oh yes! Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers has been a style icon of mine for years. Brilliant article Amber. xxx

  3. Pingback: Thatchzilla: Gender, Femininity and Political She-Monsters. | All Quiet On The Wench Front

  4. Hamish MacPherson says:

    I found this post really interesting, especially as I have my own blog looking at the performance of political speeches and part of this is interested in how the appearance of politicians is as much a part (sort of) of a speech as the words. (http://speechingdance.wordpress.com)

    I think it’s important to interrogate the image strategies of politicians but somehow I hadn’t thought enough about how the media’s interrogation of women’s appearances becomes a political act in itself (although research this week shows that even positive references make voters think less of them).

    I’m not sure what the solution is – never mentioning image seems counter productive. Maybe more reference to men’s image? http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/fashion-blog/2013/apr/02/george-osborne-hair-benefits-cut

    I’d be interested to know what you think

    • Amber Jane says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughts – I read your piece and really enjoyed it. Have you seen this book? http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9782080201355 – I think you’d like it. I agree not mentioning appearance is counter productive, the problem is that it’s too often used as an assault on female politicians, whereas with men it never seems to reach beyond satire, like the piece you posted – which I like, but the tone is very different from the way female politicians/dress/appearance are reported. I think a solution would be more women in politics; if there was more of a balance then the tone would have to shift. We’re used to looking at men in power, but not so often at women, and so women inevitably come under more scrutiny in a society which historically judges women according to aesthetic codes. I would definitely encourage more reference to mens’ image, I think politics and image is a fascinating area across the sexes. Have you also seen this? http://styleofpolitics.blogspot.co.uk/

  5. Pingback: Thatcher’s wardrobe | Speeching

  6. Hamish MacPherson says:

    Thanks for the reply Amber and the links (which I hadn’t seen before). Lots to keep in mind in the future :-)

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