Female Politicians and the In\Visibility of Power

Few things excite the mind of fashionistas as much as the way female politicians dress. Should they care, do they care, about their sartorial experiences? Does women’s power reside in being ‘invisible’ in terms of fashion choices, or does a well-chosen sartorial strategy give them ‘visibility’, and thereby ‘relatability’, sympathy, attention, perhaps even agency?

Recently, two articles dealt with this question in an interesting fashion, apparently coming to opposed conclusions. Carmen Böker’s essay in the German weekly Die Zeit offers the intriguing argument that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s power is reflected in her sartorial invisibility, in her ability to make people stop judging her by her clothing. The German audience knows what to expect from her, and she always delivers: a pantsuit, combining black trousers and jackets in different colours. In Böker’s words, such dress code ‘rather eliminates than emphasises the body, containing it hermetically so that it is no longer perceived as such’. Her ‘signature silhouette’ is always recognisable: ‘as iconic as the shape of the pedestrian traffic-light figure (Ampelmännchen)’.

If we cut through the snark, there is actually an interesting argument about the role of visibility, fashion and politics here. It suggests that visibility amounts to exposure, inviting the sometimes critical, sometimes derogatory gaze from both men and women. Merkel has clearly escapes this form of publicity by standardising and ‘dulling down’ her sartorial choices. But does this actually mean that she has become ‘invisible’? Does power really reside in this?

Screenshot 2018-11-26 at 22.14.53

There is something ironic about an essay that forwards this argument but includes a visual introduction of 42 images of chancellor Merkel wearing jackets of literally all the colours of the rainbow. Clearly, choices, however limited, are made by her. Secondly, the argument about her sartorial invisibility is based on five pages (print-out) of keen analysis of a very competent fashion writer, discussing the basic structure of Ms Merkel’s pantsuits, their effect on her physical appearance, citing the assessment of the fashion system of her pantsuits as ‘semi-fashionable’, and approvingly contrasting her fashion choices to other female and male German politicians as offering a distinctive ‘look’. Both female and male politicians, Böker suggests, have to find their own recognisable and appropriate style that escapes the public’s snarky criticism. If, as suggested, Angela Merkel is indeed a role model for this, the surely her personal style is anything but invisible. Much like her reign, people have simply come to accept it.

Which leads me to Robin Givhan’s WaPo article on Stacey Abrams, the Democratic contender for the governorship in Georgia. Regrettably, she did not win the election, but this does not distract from the main argument that Ms Abrams fashion choices were part of a political strategy: to make herself, and to make the unseen people in Georgia visible. In Ms Abrams’ words: ‘In our Georgia, no one would be unseen’. As Givhan notes, ‘Appearance is political’. Indeed, as I argue in The International Politics of Fashion, being visible is a central element of being political, never more so than in our thoroughly ‘mediated’ political reality.

Source: Barbara Jordan Forum 2012

It’s a pity Ms Abrams lost the gubernatorial elections; her Republican opponent is a lousy dresser.

Will the next US President carry a handbag?

Vanessa Friedman recently published an interesting piece in the New York Times on fashion, power and the next US President, or as she calls her, ‘The First Female President’. What will her sartorial code, her ‘fashion diplomacy’ be? This was in fact one of the topics that came up after my presentation at ISA-Northeast in Baltimore last Friday. I ventured a few thoughts about the tightrope that Madam President would have to walk between the conservative demands of the office and the reservoir for creativity that fashion offers to women. It was a very good panel and a productive discussion. Many thanks to Rose Shinko for her brilliant comments on my very rough paper.

Friedman takes a different tack by focusing on Robin Wight’s dress code as President Claire Underwood in the last season of House of Cards.

(c) Netflix

The analysis of President Underwood’s wardrobe is excellent in typical Friedman fashion.

Imagine the classic corporate suit and tie spliced with the style of a World War II Women’s Army Corps member, and topped by a dash of Helmut Newton perversity, and you’ll get the idea. Who needs shoulder pads when your seams are cut on a knife’s edge?

French cuffs with special cufflinks and Louboutin heels complete the power female look, as does the very absence of one item usually associated with female public figures: the handbag. In the words of one of the shows wardrobe experts: ‘I thought: “Claire is not carrying a bag. She has people for that. She’s president”’.

On the face of it, this is a compelling argument, and perhaps we should expect that along with the shift from ‘First Lady’ to ‘Madam President’ we shall witness a shift towards less feminine styles. But I remain sceptical about how far Friedman’s argument that Claire Underwood provides a ‘a pretty convincing take on how the first Madam President might present herself’ carries. Given the twisted and dark plotline of House of Cards with the new president still playing a central role in the depicted machinations of power, what female president would want to ‘look like Claire Underwood’? The above characterisation suggests that her style will look in hindsight as an idiosyncratic than representative style.

Secondly, as Daniel Conway’s chapter in The International Politics of Fashion demonstrates, in the right hands, handbags can be political weapons. The former British Prime Margaret Thatcher used hers to emphasise her abrasive style in European Community negotiations. Writes Conway, ‘Such was the power of her dress, one element became a universal metaphor for political and diplomatic behaviour: ‘to handbag’ or to receive a ‘handbagging’ (Oxford English Dictionary: 1993)’. And apparently, she was quite selective in her taste: her increasing desire to appear at least as royal as the Queen is also revealed in her choice of Aspreys bags – the same manufacturer Her Majesty preferred.

The one bag the next President will not have to carry is the ‘nuclear football’.


For that task, she can rely on a military aide-de-camp. Apparently, this is usually a male person. Perhaps under the next US President, it will be a female officer?