First Lady vs First Person: Why political dressing is stuck in old formulas


First Lady vs First Person: Why political dressing is stuck in old formulas

It has been a flurried fortnight across the globe. Top world leaders met, handshakes and scowls were decoded, blue and red neckties symbolised more than hot and cold concerns around climate change, a music concert in Manchester became the site of brutal terror and black lacy veils – worn by Melania and Ivanka Trump at the Vatican – unveiled strategic conservatism in clothing.

A lot has changed in international politics. A lot has also changed in the culture of global fashion. Yet political dressing sticks to old formulas. First ladies turn out camera-clever in immaculately tailored, figure-hugging, “fashionable” clothes. Female premiers on the other hand continue to be dictated by corporate power dressing – tops and bottoms disaggregated in colour and shape to differentiate from the male politician’s garb but nowhere a nod to contemporary style. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electric blue shirt top first worn at the G7 meet in Italy, and then during her meeting with Modi in Berlin makes the point that recycling is not jingoism – she means it.

Some will argue that British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has often confessed her love for fashion, been interviewed in gold leather trousers and termed her versatile collection of shoes an “icebreaker”, falls on the centre of this otherwise sharp divide. But if you observe the severity of her skirts, their often brooding palette, the sharp lapels of her blazers, the disproportionate chunkiness of her necklaces and her hair in a short, silver bob, you will know she is more inclined to power than to prettiness.

Prettiness isn’t a disempowering word. Nor is power its stark opposite. The two can be mates. As they truly are in the haute dresses and hauteur of Robin Wright playing Claire Underwood, the First Lady of the US as well as a vice presidential hopeful in the Netflix series House of Cards, a new season of which was released earlier this week. Power and prettiness also joined hands in Michelle Obama’s powerful interpretation of her role as First Lady. She mixed high street and high fashion, J Crew and Jason Wu, short frocks and long gowns, bare, toned arms with a bare and bold view of human rights and American culture. Power looked pretty on her.

But the divide has bounced back rather sharply with Melania. She owns an enviable wardrobe, knows her silhouettes, proportions and colours well, is perfectly groomed and coiffed. Unlike Merkel and May, short necklaces or an obligatory strand of pearls are not de rigeur for her. The black Stella McCartney jumpsuit she wore with a broad St Laurent belt while alighting from Air Force One in Riyadh during Donald Trump’s first foreign tour or the all-white pencil skirt set worn with toffee-coloured stilettos in Israel were stuff only a model could carry off – glamorous and sexy. But hers is an aloof version of pretty and is minus point-of-view. It is purely about wifehood as the primary profession.

Political fashion got a professional setback late last year when Hilary Clinton lost the most powerful election in the world. Pantsuits went back to being predominantly male. The Imaginary First Spouse went back to becoming, well, female.

But there may be some liberation in sight for a year so far re-trapped in stereotypes. Beyond Melania, Merkel and May. There’s Brigitte Macron, the 63-year-old First Lady of France grabbing headlines for her Jane Fonda looks, fondness for storied luxury brand Louis Vuitton, short, sleeveless dresses and clingy leather tights, who is the real centre of the divide between a first wife and a shrewd political dresser. She votes for French fashion and has a wild, pop star streak with her leather leggings and jackets with zips and metallic trims. She may have salon hair and wear pointy tall heels like First Ladies do but the length of her skirts is shorter than those of Melania and May. A former drama teacher, she is literally, a literary device to the first wife-first person conundrum.