When looking at the headlines of female politicians, it is clear that their appearance makes up much of their coverage. Take the Brexit discussion that Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon had in 2016 around the issue of Scotland leaving the EU. This discussion was summed up by the Daily Mail as not a debate around the most significant question for the UK, but around the legs of the leaders. ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it?’ held the front page of the national newspaper and reduced these women down to solely the attractiveness of their bodies. Therefore, the importance of how a woman looks, and what she wears, is undeniably important, especially those in the public eye. In an interview with Jude Kelly, the founder of annual festival Women of the World - WOW, she discussed why male clothing as the correct code of power is such a tough mould to break, and why female politicians in particular struggle to challenge the stereotype that women's clothing equate to weakness, whilst male clothing asserts strength. The WOW foundation aims to empower women and girls when faced with problems such as these, and thus Kelly stands as a key observer of how women in power can fall into the trap of believing that clothing’s mark for power is masculine.
When asked why there is so much more coverage of what a woman wears over what they say, Kelly’s response was simple: ‘a woman's worth in society is strongly related to the attractiveness of her as a wife’. Therefore, her physical worth is prioritised over her intellectual one. The repercussive remark that ‘the scrutiny that politicians come under is part of the fact that ‘oh first she is a woman and even if she is not showing she is, we’re going to do that for her regardless of if she wants it’’ coincides with idea that ceaseless judgement will continue, irrespective of what attire is worn.
The question therefore is, how does a woman lessen the importance of her clothing? By taking a stand against the scrutiny and wearing whatever they please? By wearing a suit to blend in with their male counterparts? This latter solution of emulating masculine clothing for many is seen as the appropriate solution, regardless of whether they like to admit it or not. Mirrored by Kelly's opinion that ‘if [a woman] wants her clothes neutralised in the commentary, she will more than likely have to wear a dark blue or black suit’ is the prime example of Hillary Clinton. The shedding of her feminine, First Lady dresses in exchange for her monochrome pant suits when deciding to run in the 2016 Presidential election clearly shows the perceived necessity to match her peers, who were almost all men. And although some characterised Clintons shift as a liberating moment for women in power, as it allowed her to become a role model and template for empowering others, this does not ring as true when analysing her clothing. The mould created by Clinton is one that entrenched dresses and skirts as weak, and instilled the suit as the accepted and familiar indicator for power.
When in 1993, women in the US Senate were finally allowed to wear trousers, a stampede to utilize this seemingly equaling tool emerged, with its legacy clearly still alive today. On the surface, this instrument to level the playing field by simulating the male suits that saturated their profession seemed like the best idea, but it has a crumbling aftermath. This repercussion lies in the ostracisation of traditionally female clothing. The dress, especially for female politicians, will always be pushed further out into the realm of domesticity and subservience as long as females hold the minority of leadership roles in politics, while the suit will continue to prosper as the rightful owner of power. This is ‘a very sad set of choices’, as Kelly puts it.
However, in the 1960s, key designers such as Mary Quant and André Courrèges did attempt to overturn this inferior association to feminine clothing, with mini skirts that flipped the previously reductive and shocking length of the skirt. Yet, in that same decade came one of the most influential female leaders of the time, Maragret Thatcher, whose attire could not be more dissimilar to that of Mary Quants popularised trends. So although freedom for women’s fashion was partly licensed, this clearly did not, and has not stretched into the arena of politics.
In a nutshell - is wearing a suit a good short term solution: yes. A good long term one? Not so much. On the surface, no one likes to say they would judge a female politician for wearing a dress; but as Jude Kelly points out, ‘there's a world we would like to live in where women were not judged on what they wear, but there's a world we do live in where we know they are’.