It is not difficult to recognise that women are rendered more vulnerable in politics and business by the sheer choice of professional outfits they are presented with, whereas men are able to use the anonymous suit as a form of armour against critics. While the extent to which the media dissects the outfits of prominent women (Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Christine Lagarde and Nicola Sturgeon, to name a few) borders on the ridiculous, the implications of the power- womanhood dichotomy are very real and hugely significant.
In 2014, psychologists at Dartmouth College found that people were less likely to vote for women candidates “if there was even a tiny amount of hesitancy assigning their gender”, while the “dynamic was not found for the male politicians.” The researchers also discovered that female politicians who were not instantaneously categorised as female (i.e. their expression of womanhood was either unconventional or inexplicit) received fewer votes. Both Mrs. Clinton and Angela Merkel have faced a constant stream of mockery over their lack of femininity. Their attempts to exert their power as desexualised female figures through their clothes and grooming has often taken precedence in front-page discussions, drawing attention away from their proposed policies and achievements.
Despite this, fashion has the potential to tackle this vestiary handicap of feminine power. The recent exhibition at the London Design Museum, “Women Fashion Power,” rather than passing sartorial judgement on women, shows how they have used, and still can use fashion to their personal and professional advantage. Black American women in the 1960s and 1970s wore denim overalls instead of dresses as they fought to dress on their own terms. The universal colour of the breast cancer awareness campaign and awareness month is pink, and many fashion houses produce limited edition pieces to raise money for the cause. Lady Gaga’s meat dress was not merely a publicity stunt, but a sarcastic stand against media’s objectification of women’s bodies.
Hillary Clinton has even turned the caricature of her (now notorious) pantsuits into a means of fundraising: the “Laugh Your Pantsuit Off” female stand-up comedy event raised money for her campaign. The way in which she referred to her fondness of this professional attire as “my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” gave her a humility and warmth of personality, something many voters felt she lacked. In harnessing the potency of fashion, rather than ignoring it, these women were able to transform a potential stigma into a force for activism.
Theresa May, speaking at the Women in the World summit in 2015, was interviewed on the relationship between women, fashion, and power. She declared that the efficacy of a woman in power and an appreciation of fashion were not mutually exclusive. Through this message, she highlighted that women use clothes to express a facet of their identity that may otherwise be denied, without it undermining expectations. The embodiment of womanhood and power through fashion, though intricately woven, should be seen not as an embarrassment, affront, or injustice, but as an opportunity to communicate the silent and powerful story of repression and empowerment of women in positions of authority.
Words: Flora Walsh
Edited by Elena Stanciu
Cover image by Collier Schorr for The New York Times' October issue, 2016.