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Dressing for Success? Decoding a Politician’s Wardrobe

23 May 2017

Seems only a year ago we were at the voting booths and here we are back again! With election season in full swing, we thought it would be a good time to train our eye on the world of political workwear.

Like it or not, what you wear speaks volumes about you. In many ways, politicians dress like office workers. They don’t have a uniform but like many offices, the House of Commons has a loosely defined dress code that has evolved to match the times we live in. Men should wear a jacket, shirt and tie, women are expected to dress in smart, businesslike attire, while informal dress is frowned upon.

Should a politician dress “on brand”?

Politicians are customer facing. They spend a lot of their time meeting their constituents and trying to persuade them to buy into their ideas. They also represent a political party or “brand” if you will, each with their own distinct manifesto. In many ways, it would make sense for politicians to wear identifiers that reflected this in some way.

And there lies the paradox of political attire. We expect our MPs to be 100% focused on representing our views and concerns and we don’t want their individuality or ego to overshadow that. Yet we also like our MPs to be charismatic, exude personality, and we want to know what they stand for. This largely comes from what they say, but to a certain extent, we also judge them by how they dress. We want our elected representatives to be a sartorial blank canvas but simultaneously stylish and well-dressed.

Stand Out or Blend In?

In a parliament full of men in bland grey suits and women in dowdy boxy suits, it doesn’t do any harm to stand out in your choice of outfit. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is known for his dated doubled-breasted suits. His trademark look symbolises his staunch traditional values and the admirable quality of being comfortable in his own skin, not caring what others think of him. We may not like what he stands for but at least we know what he stands for.

A Signature Look?

This is even truer for senior politicians who represent our country to the outside world. On a simply practical level, maintaining a signature look actually requires less thought or energy – the reason Barack Obama cites for wearing the same thing. But having a signature look can also be reassuring: it can give leaders an air of confidence and stability, or just a sense of knowing what you’re getting. Whether it’s Angela Merkel’s trouser suits, Obama’s tailored blue or grey suits, Theresa May’s kitten heels, Jeremy Corbyn’s baker boy hat, Boris Johnson’s mussed-up hair, even Donald Trump’s long red ties – there’s comfort in familiarity.

“Fashion as a political weapon”

Political fashion statements do not go unnoticed by the media either. Just look at the tsunami of press commentary garnered by Theresa May’s seemingly innocent brown leather trousers. Was it the £1,000 price tag that made her seem out of touch with ordinary people? Or was it because they were leather and deemed too suggestive, too young or too rebellious for a PM of a certain age? The Spectator made the case that France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen had strategically used “fashion as a political weapon”, choosing loose-fitting, low price, folksy styles to project a “reassuring mumsy image”. From Grazia magazine to the New York Times, journalists and readers pore over what our leaders wear and what message this sends.

For the partners of political leaders, the pressure is just as great, if not more so. As they have less of a platform to voice their own opinions, what they wear is an even more important tool to express who they are and what they are about, without even saying a word. From the iconic Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and Melania Trump, each has had their fashion choices scrutinized and examined for hidden meaning. It’s also an opportunity for First Ladies to use their high profile visibility to be style ambassadors and showcase the best of their nation’s designers.

The latest in the long line of First Ladies to earn her sartorial stripes is Brigitte Macron, the wife of Emanuelle Macron. Her wardrobe is sassy and unconventional much like her marriage, and has drawn praise from many quarters for breaking the mould. For instance, Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, gushes,

“The Michelle Obama-size hole that has been left in the art of sartorial communications and diplomacy since America’s former first couple left the world stage may be about to be filled.”

Friedman assigns far more importance to Brigitte Macron’s wardrobe than clothes. When she gets dressed, she is sending a message to the world. When we create a signature look or design a uniform, we have to consider image and branding. We must make ourselves easily identifiable and unique through our wardrobe. We need what we wear to be practical. And our outfits should tell a story, convey a message about ourselves to the people we interact with.

Who is winning in Britain’s political style stakes?

So what of Britain’s political leaders? What do their trademark looks say about them?  JSD’s Head Designer takes a closer look:

Theresa May, PM and Leader of the Conservatives
What works best about her look? I like how Theresa May adds leopard print to her classic tailoring suits. By adding leopard print to an otherwise plain outfit, it tells me that she has a fun side to her personality.
How would you improve her look? Over the knee skirts and a straight leg cropped pant would help.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Leader
What works best about his look? I like the baker boy cap look on Corbyn. It makes him feel less alien and more human.
How would you improve his look? A slimmer cut tailored suit.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the SNP
What works best about her look? Her use of bright and bold colours is always fun and eye catching. The day I see her in an all black suit I will be worried!
How would you improve her look? Nothing.

Tim Farron, Leader of the Liberal Democrats
What works best about his look? The colour co-ordination between his ties and suits is very good.
How would you improve his look? A sleek tie pin.


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