Fashion power

Ann-Maria McCarthy looks at the role of fashion in politics from
Jackie O to Michelle O

Ann-Maria McCarthy looks at the role of fashion in politics from
Jackie O to Michelle O

Jackie Kennedy Onassis has a lot to answer for; forty years on and we still see clones of her, both in politics and in fashion. Of course, she set the standard to which all aspiring first ladies feel almost duty-bound to follow; the classic shift dress, a subdued pea-coat and a pill-box hat are, if not the uniform, at least what we all envisage of a woman in politics. That standard is, arguably, demure, elegant, non-threatening, and certainly not individual – all the things we expect from a woman on the outskirts of politics.

During the current American presidential campaign, Michelle Obama has faced much criticism from various parties on her “look” – she can come across as too independent and too fierce; and much of this opinion is based on her wardrobe, the sharp tailoring of which is somewhat intimidating in spite of her attempt at the traditional Jackie O look.

Notice how, after the infamous fist-bump, Michelle wasn’t seen in dark colours or trousers for over a month – she knows as well as we do that pastels make her seem like more of a homemaker and less of a kick-ass lawyer. Both the Obamas staunchly emphasise their working-class roots and, although at times Michelle’s style can be glitzy and expensive, when she does pursue the support of the working classes, Azzedine Alaia is relegated to the back of her wardrobe and the more reasonable, local designs of Mario Pinto, in austere black and grey, are worn instead.

Compare this with Cindy McCain who, quite frankly, doesn’t do austere or subtle and most certainly does not do working class. Her look is more good old-fashioned American bling. At one of her husband’s many public appearances, she wore an ensemble that cost over $300,000. The average price for a U.S home is $200,000. To say that wearing an outfit like that when two major US banks dealing with mortgages are on the verge of collapse (not to mention the rest of the economy) is in bad taste and insensitive, would be an understatement.

Depending on your politics you will either see her as a pit-bull or a pig in lipstick, but can you really deny that that Sarah Palin has got the style for the job right? Nothing flashy, nothing overtly sexy, nothing that is going to draw criticism (for her clothes anyway). Her clothes are serious; she’s campaigning for a position that would see her sworn in if John McCain was to die in office and, therefore, has potential to be the first female President of the US. She has to show that she is a professional and if her speeches and foreign policy know-how aren’t going to make people take her seriously, she can at least look the part. As a relative unknown, her image is important as, unfortunately, many American voters will only know her by that.
Despite the fact that she didn’t win the Democrat nomination, can we begin to talk about women in politics without mentioning Hilary Clinton? And yet, perhaps understandably, fashion was never a priority of hers – she even turned down an interview with Vogue during her campaign. During her time as First lady, she glammed-up on occasion in Oscar de la Renta but when she decided to run for Senate, her look wqas totally desexualised. Perhaps this sterile image backfired – no one could see Hilary Clinton, the person, anymore. Is that why towards the later stages of the primaries she tried a bit of femininity – blouses and pink, and crying for the television cameras? Was it simply a case of too little too late?

This apparent need to dress the part, despite the loss of individual personality, is not reserved for American women – it is visible in French counterpart, Carla Bruni, as well. Admittedly, being a former model, born in Italy and raised in France, Carla has somewhat of an edge on her competitors. She is no stranger to reinvention, though, progressing from outrageously glamorous in the early nineties, to relaxed boho for her music career, and now, like almost every other woman in politics, she has adopted the Jackie O look.

Known for her many affairs, the boho look of Carla the singer may have accentuated her “loose woman” image – fine when she was a model but when she married French president Nicolas Sarkozy, something had to give, and the makeover was extreme but effective.
This was evidenced by the recent presidential visit to Great Britain, an undeniable publicity success; the flat sensible shoes, almost overly long pencil skirts and pill box hats that made up her wardrobe were all the papers could talk about, on their front pages, no less.

She even managed to survive the revelation of nude pictures that were published during her visit – no mean feat, particularly in the British tabloids. Whilst her look may come across a bit try hard, even fictitious, her popularity has irrefutably soared, and with a husband who is tolerated one minute and despised the next, I suspect his advisors are relieved they have the makings of a French Princess Diana in Carla.

Perhaps it is unfair to pit our own Mary McAleese against the inherent chicness of this French/Italian woman, but no-one could argue that the Irish President was ever going to be a darling of Vogue – to be fair, she has never tried to be. Her look is professional, in control, understated and competent, and she pull it off well. It may be described as boring, traditional or safe, yet that is what she is aiming for; not stylish or fashion conscious, but so that when she speaks, she is respected, and perhaps so that we care about her words, not her shoes.

Conversely, consider the effect of fashion – or more appropriately, a “look” – on these powerful women – they have all changed or adapted their style to their audience, admittedly, some with more success than others.

Why, then, does our own President not acknowledge this power? Why did Hilary obliterate every aspect of femininity in her dress, when her very gender was such a selling point in her campaign? And why does it seem that in the twenty-first century, even western society is disinclined to endorse a woman in power with femininity, strength and personality – as an individual?