Monday, 30 July 2012

Political Style: Does It Really Matter How Our Leaders Dress?

A few Sundays ago I was sitting reading The Sunday Times (a challenge in itself; I am small and your average broadsheet is rather large. You try reading a newspaper that is basically your arm span sometime!) and there was a piece criticizing what French Cabinet Minister Cecile Duflot has been turning up to Cabinet meetings wearing; outfits that included a skirt that came a bit above her knee (but was in no way so short it could be considered unbecoming) and a pair of jeans in a rather wonderful trench coat ensemble. She has also recently been wolf whistled in the French parliament for wearing a stylish blue and white dress. It may just be that I don’t find issue with her outfits because I am rather sartorially inclined, but I find myself wishing women in the British political arena took more care in their appearance.
Louise Mench, British Member of Parliament for Corby in GQ Magazine

From female Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers to most House of Commons staffers that swarm the cafeterias at Parliamentary lunchtime most of the women assembled, it can be said, don’t really take much care in what they are wearing. There are a few notable exceptions; Conservative MP Louise Mench has been ridiculed by the British  media for appearing in sharp, tailored looks in GQ, and newspapers have kept up a satirical running commentary on Home Secretary Theresa May’s fun shoe collection which includes a pretty spectacular pair of leopard print kitten heels. 
French Minister for Territorial Equality and Housing Cecile Duflot

The enduring argument is that it does not really matter how politicians dress as it is their job to run our country, not our fashion weeks, but isn’t it their duty as public figures to look smart and presentable? In the past it has been argued that being interested in fashion and personal style shows that you’re not intelligent, but that simply does not hold anymore. Caring about your personal style means caring about how you present yourself to the world, so should we not care how our representatives are presenting us, and not just themselves by how they have dressed?

It is not just the woman; I can’t think of many other countries in the world where male politicians can get away with standing up in Parliament or on television in a disheveled and ill fitting suit; thank God that of all the current front bench David Cameron is our Prime Minister and not Ken Clarke. Who here would prefer a man standing up in a ill fitting and creased suit and representing Britain at the United Nations or at the G8, or someone in a crisp, well tailored suit? 

This brings me to my final question for you all, do you think it matters how our political leaders dress? Obviously it is their opinions and policies that really count, but as we seem to hold politicians to higher moral standards (think about our reactions when politicians are found to have had affairs or to have briefly sampled drugs in their early youth) should we also hold them to higher sartorial standards too?


  1. How people present themselves is always important and regarding how the politicians of MY country dress most of the time (apparently they are too cool to care for their looks, ill fitting suits are very trendy here), I admire Duflot. A well tailored suit/dress and a nice everyday style is pleasing to the eye if nothing else.

  2. First of all we have to acknowledge the fact that we're talking about two completely different countries. If Cecile Duflot has been wolf whistled in parliament, I think this is simply a reflection of a different culture. There are different degrees of this kind of behaviour towards women which I'm not sure will ever completely be eradicated - for example I found it very offensive when David Cameron told Angela Eagle to "calm down dear". Whatever context it was in, he is the Prime Minister and should know better than to stoop to the levels that he does (this isn't the only occasion he's indulged in that as you know).

    The problem for me is the hypocrisy involved with being a tory minister. They prance around, telling other people how to live their lives, as Louise Mensch does very often, and then they indulge in practices which focus on image and essentially materialism. Who are they to take the moral high ground on issues? This is not to say that I don't think you should take care of your appearance - if you want to, you should, if you don't want to, don't. My issue is of people telling others what to do but not following those practices themselves. I hate Louise Mensch and the tories anyway I'm afraid so this was always going to be biased.

    For the record I would rather have a Prime Minister dressed in rags than David Cameron. When it comes to social issues such as poverty, why the hell does it matter what they're wearing?

  3. But I understand why people focus on image, because that is sadly the world we live in.

  4. The reason I used both French and British politicians, was to lay it out that this is a universal issue (if you believe that it is an issue at all). On that note though, moving to the British House of Commons and the Conservatives (who I chose because they are currently in power, and I could not think of any sartorially interesting Liberal Democrats), there was an occasion when Jaqui Smith got stick in the chamber for wearing a dress with visible cleavage too. As for the event with the "calm down dear" quote, I was watching the PMQ's session in question live, and the quote was taken totally out of context by the media, which took it from being something simply said because she was getting rather frustrated to a Shadow Minister who happened to be a woman, into something that was insulting to women. However, that is up to personal opinion and interpretation, which is probably swayed by personal political bias.

    Speaking of personal political bias, I appreciate your position, as I feel it is a position held my most politically inclined members of the public about the opposing party; I feel outraged that governments I have not supported because I feel they are out of touch and lack understanding have the audacity to tell me how best to live my life, when I feel that at least amongst ably minded members of the public it is they who know how best to live their own lives, not that government, or any government.

    I think by bringing politics into this, however you have slightly missed the spirit of the post which was meant to be detached from it and apply to all politicians (one of the main reasons it focuses on British Conservative politicians aside from the fact they are the ones currently representing our country on the world stage alongside the Lib Dems, is that I wrote this post while traveling without internet, and I have trouble remembering the names of a lot of the Shadow Cabinate, let alone their wardrobes, except for Harriet Harman's awful giraffe print jacket, and that is a personal preference and at least she makes an effort!), because if I applied politics to my opinion and forgot my view that those in visible public positions should make an effort, I would agree with you on the rags aspect in that I would have David Cameron as Prime Minister dressed in rags, if it meant he no longer had to have Nick Clegg standing next to him as Deputy!

  5. I do have to admit that I love how Cameron always looks presentable and well put together. And I think politicians should really put more effort into their appearances. I know they're running the country, but it's no excuse to dress all frumpy. They represent the country and should look good when they do so. As much as we deny it, everyone judges on first appearances and looks.

    I like to think that when you and me were on the Election campaign, we really bought up British politics, fashion wise!

  6. Hey, I made sure the good people of Dover & Deal learnt about the wonders of Boden basics, the versatility of a good pair of well fitted black skinny jeans an the sheer brilliance of Donna Karen trainers!

  7. Sadly, wolf-whistling isn't a culture thing. Certain back-benchers used to chant "Jugs," at a larger-chested female MP here in Britain whenever she got up to speak. I remember being told about that during my Politics A Level. Horrendous behaviour.

  8. I think it is important for politicians to look well-turned out. Even if I might not want to represented by Cameron or whoever, at the moment, that's the way it is, so they should make some effort.
    If you work in business, you wouldn't go out to a client meeting looking like a scruff, would you? You're representing your company, so you smarten up. Politics should be just the same. It's professional.

  9. You think politicians should be well turned out, or you should turn up to a job interview wearing presentable clothes because society tells you that's what people should wear. You certainly wouldn't turn up to an interview looking scruffy because that is what people expect of you. But why is it right that we should live our lives based on the expectations of other people? Whether "that's the way it is" or not you should surely look at this morally. When we talk about politicians and governments, we should be focusing on the decisions that change peoples lives, not whether a certain MPs' skirt is too short or not. If that is what the majority of the public do, I think we are a very shallow public indeed.

  10. Doing exactly what society expects of you is the job of a Member of Parliament. They have been elected to represent the views, ideals and interests of their constituants, not themselves. Regardless of if they do this or not, it is what their job description entails. Also, if you don't take pride in your appearance (and I don't mean looking fashionable, I mean wearing clean, ironed clothes in good repair in a presentable manner), what does that say about you?

  11. I
    was also watching PMQs and to be honest I think you're kidding yourself if you
    think that wasn't condescending and slightly chauvinistic. I have also seen him
    insult other people on numerous occasions (namely Dennis Skinner - I don't
    think anyone can argue that wasn't uncalled for) which as a PM and a grown man
    he shouldn't be doing. If we're going to talk about how important representing
    the country is, surely we should look at the fact our PM behaves like a 5 year

    background isn't particularly extreme - that is to say I shouldn't really be
    inclined strongly to either the left or the right - in fact, my parents have
    struggled as a result of constantly JUST missing thresholds for things like
    EMA, maintenance etc which have been introduced by Labour governments, but
    personally I feel they are a lesser of two evils. Naturally though, we both
    think the same thing about the opposing parties .

    I have to disagree that I've missed the
    spirit of the post. You did say after all "it is their job to run our
    country, not our fashion weeks" which is exactly my point. I know that you
    mean this post isn't strictly specific to either the left or the right as such,
    but everything which politicians deal with, whether it is in this country or
    any other, whether left or right, will come under the umbrella of "politics"
    which is why I feel it is important not to put so much emphasis on what people
    wear. After all, we're talking about people's lives. Whether they are conservative or labour, left
    or right, is irrelevant, I agree, but ,my point about certain tory ministers
    was the hypocrisy, which I don't deny politicians from all parties are guilty
    of, but personally I feel some tory ministers are more guilty of. But as you're politically inclined I'm sure
    you don't mind a bit of a debate?

    I find it interesting
    how quite a few people comment "Politicians should take care of their
    appearance" but ignore the real reason why - because our society is sadly
    very shallow!

    Anyway I hope you don't take all of this as an attack, I've read your blog for a very long time, but I do enjoy debating with people. I think as a fashion blogger it is so important to not lose perspective of what is actually important.

  12. To be honest, I did not react at all to that comment until the press started picking up on it. But top be fair, that could be because I am used to Westminster, the people in it and it would not even register as being chauvinistic to me if it was said to me by any man in politics. But, I am the first to admit there is a very different mentality in Parliament to the rest of the world, which as an entity on the whole I am not entirely happy with.

    To be honest, it is just personal view of mine, which a lot of people share and a lot of people don't, that everyone should take care in their appearance, not necessarily to be fashionable, but just to be well turned out and I was simply applying this to politicians because they are supposed to be the peoples representatives, and the idea for this post was sparked by the piece in The Sunday Times.

    And I love a bit of a debate, especially on an issue that is bi-partisan, because I find usually debating politics with anyone who disagrees with my views is like arguing with a brick wall, and they feel the same about debating with me, as either of us is unlikely to budge from our position. I don't take it as an attack at all - I posted this not just so that people would agree with me, but so that they would disagree too, and I'm glad you've been a regular reader! I find it interesting to debate this as a fashion writer here on my blog, when I've had very similar discussions with politicians when I (and others) have been despairing of their suits asking "are you really going to stand up in the House of Commons" dressed like that, more as a joke, but which sparked a little debate.

  13. I don't think presenting your best self is shallow. If that was all you cared about, yeah, that is, but putting on a well-cut suit is just making an extra effort to aid your professional manner.
    I completely agree that we shouldn't be debating the length of a politician's skirt. Unfortunately the media do focus on the appearance of female politicians, and my view has always been that as long as she looks professional (as a representative, she should look professional, I think) it doesn't matter what a female politician wears.
    Sadly, having an interest in fashion often means people assume you're an airhead. For women in the public eye in politics it's a lose-lose. If they're too fashionable, they're slammed for being too 'try-hard', if they're not, they're labelled as 'frumps'. Take Samantha Cameron. If she wears a designer dress, the media write in horror that she dares flaunt her money when so many have very little. If she wears a high-street dress, she's sneered at for trying to pretend she's 'just like us'. Nobody does this to the men.

    By the way, can I just say what a pleasure it is to have a sensible debate on the internet, with no-one throwing a hissy-fit? Gotta love intelligent, respectful disagreeing, haha. Thanks!

  14. Connie @ July 2012 at 20:44

    A very interesting post - it's nice to see something a bit different in my feed.

    As part of my degree I studied a module called Political Scandals, which essentially argued that the reason why politicians face such a backlash in the event of a wrong-doing or misdemeanor is that the general public tend to put world leaders on a pedestal. They are widely considered to be almost superhuman, under the assumption that no average Joe Bloggs could run a country.

    To this end, we do hold them to higher standards and are quick to criticise, so I suppose it is surprising that many don't appear to be judged for the lack of attention paid to their fashion choices. I wonder if it is a bit of a catch 22 situation though. Whilst taking care of their personal presentation may actually be a useful tool for representing themselves as a political brand of sorts, it could also be detrimental; just think of Sarkozy's persona as "President Bling Bling", with his expensive watches and 'new money' lifestyle.

  15. I think you're either mis-interpreting what I meant or just taking it out of context. Doing what society expects of you as an MP is completely different to doing what society expects of you when talking about what clothes to wear. Firstly I think it's dangerous to blur those two together, and secondly I think it kind of makes a mockery of what politics should be about, especially when the actions of MPs directly affect peoples lives i.e. housing, taxes, and all the rest. Yes, I enjoy fashion, but by no means do I think it should take priority over anything else.

    And in reply to the other part, you tell me? Whether it says something negative or not, I see that as the onlooker's own prejudice, not the persons (who doesn't look presentable) problem. If you're prejudiced towards someone because of them not looking presentable, then I feel you should be directing that question towards yourself. I personally try very hard not to judge by appearance. Naturally we do this because we have become conditioned to in the world that we live in, but this really shouldn't be the way. I much prefer to judge people on their own personal qualities than the way they look.

  16. Let's be honest, it is really, isn't it? I'm not obsessed with my looks but I'm not afraid to admit in those moments when I'm choosing what to wear, or putting a bit of make up on or whatever else, it is self indulgent and a bit shallow. And when you say to "aid your professional manner", does this not all come down to image again? My point is just that it disappoints me that this is the way the world works.

    Of course there will always be tabloids that criticise, but I think it is for the individual to look past that. Can I just say that Samantha Cameron is not a politician anyway so I don't really think we can look to her as a "woman in the public eye in the politics" because she doesn't particularly seem to do a lot in terms of politics. Michelle Obama on the other hand has been criticised before for some of the clothes she chooses to wear, but I think many people acknowledge what a respectable woman she is for the work she does independent from Barack.

    I do agree with you however that this is hardly ever done towards men, but unfortunately women are an easy target for the tabloids because the british public lap it all up. What does this say about our attitudes?

    It is quite refreshing to have a debate about this!

  17. If I've mis-interpreted your point I'm sorry, but I would have thought society's view of what clothes someone should wear in a professional capacity applies to everyone working in a professional capacity, MP's not exempt from that. And I was by no means saying that a Members clothing should take precedence over anything else, just that maybe they should think that because they are in a visible and representative position they should take some care in how they present themselves, just how some celebrities that act in children and teen shows etc. say they feel responsible to make their actions as such that they can be seen as positive role models, because like it or not that (a role model) is how they will be viewed.

    I agree with you that it would be wrong to judge politicians solely on their appearance, because that is not their primary job, but I still think how they choose to present themselves matters. I think (on the whole, there are no politicians I don't have mid range to major qualms with) Ken Clarke does a really good job, but I still think he ought to wear suits that actually fit. I think it is Theresa May's wonderful job (in my opinion) as Home Secretary that should get the press, not her shoe collection, and I think it is unfair she gets negative press for actually taking care of how she presents herself (and I by no means like her clothes, that is a particular green grey jacket with a wide looped structured neckline that I cringe at every time I see her wear it!)

  18. Tell me this, would David Cameron have said "Calm down DEAR" to a man? I doubt it. You say that it could be because you're "used to Westminster", but I also follow politics closely and I just think what you've said confirms my views. Instead I think you're ignoring the fact that comments like this are not really acceptable just because you support a certain political party.

    But what exactly does "to be well turned out" actually mean? Also you must realise that not everybody is fortunate enough to be able to do that even if they wanted to, so sometimes it just isn't that easy.

  19. Doesn't making sure you're dressed in a professional and smart manner have a reflection on your work and manner, as it effects your mind set? Thinking about what you wear and putting makeup on is not at all shallow, it puts you in the best possible mind set to present yourself to the world. Some people achieve this through meditation, listening to music, but people who do this through makeup and clothes should by no means be called shallow for it.

    And I agree with everything you have said about tabloid news papers, though. I really think they cater for the intellectual lows of society. Though reading it would still probably get me rather angry, I would take a left wing broadsheet over a right wing tabloid any day.

  20. David Cameron would not have said calm down dear to a man, because it is a quote (from a comercial) that would not work on a man, but as you have pointed out in reference to Frank Skinner, if a person believes that his attacks on the opposition during PMQ's are childish, they would have no problem finding similar instances directed at a man, where he has executed a put down from the usually prepared list of jokes every party leader walks into the chamber with (George Osbourne used to write them, no idea who it is now or if he still does). I said I was used to Westminster, not used to Conservatives in Westminster. There have been plenty of attacks made in the chamber by Labour and, pre coalition Lib Dem members which I have not held issue with, but so many Conservatives have, so I don't feel that I thought his comment was not chauvinistic just because I am a Tory.

    Well turned out? To have made an effort to look smart and tidy, and to look like you have not just rolled out of bed, a look which I also feel is disrespectful to those you are meeting with. Being clean, your clothes being in good repair, or at leased ironed and clean (if I could afford to I would personally install a trouser press in every parliamentary office) is not something that you have to have means to do. You just need to take care in your appearance.

    1. Therefore Cameron chose a jibe specifically to be used towards a woman, making her being a woman totally relevant! Also Cameron seems to go for cheap (and extremely unfunny) jokes while Dennis Skinner usually attacks the social position of tories which I (of course) feel is totally justified.

      While you think everyone will have the means to do this I certainly doubt that everyone in the world does. And why should people be well turned out then, so they don't have to face prejudice?

  21. Bringing it back to fashion, it is a sad fact of life that society is shallow, but that is the way it is. Politicians are the first things people will notice about a country, especially while watching the news. It is important that they look good, and dress well, and not to be judged for doing so. It doesn't really matter who is in charge (well, it does, but not really for the point I'm making): but who ever it is, needs to be well dressed as they're representing the country on an international scale.
    You can't have a shabby looking politician, male or female, especially during international conferences, just like you can't go to work looking like you've just got out of bed.

    As someone into fashion and politics, I know that capabilities are far more important than looks, and I really would love that to be a way of the world, but it isn't: not in any sector or industry.

    1. It's all very well telling me the way the world is, but wishing it was different and ignoring that is worse than just being a blind and unconcious follower in my opinion. It's like nobody can be arsed to actually take a stand because 'that's the way it is'.

    2. Also you seem to therefore have a complete lack of faith in people's perception of politicians. Or perhaps that's a reflection of your own perception? Because in my experience although politicians have been ridiculed for their image on both the left and right, on the whole I doubt it sways who people vote for that much.

  22. What she said, she framed my point much better than I did in the first place!

  23. I think clothing can absolutely have an effect on your working mind-set. You hear about people who work from home dressing 'for the office; to separate work and home life.

    I'd also agree about the tabloids. They print so much bilge; worst of all is the deliberately inflammatory stories so people get up in arms about it, but because they're all furiously reading the story, the website gets loads of hits and generates whopping advertising income. There's some statistics floating around at the moment about the Daily Mail's earnings from people clicking through from Twitter over controversial stories, like that Samantha Brick "I'm so beautiful" fiasco from a while back.

  24. I completely agree that politicians should dress well because they are representatives of the country. I find it ridiculous, though, that people scrutinize women for dressing well, and only analyze their fashion, not politics. Kind of like how the Huffington Post is incessantly talking about Hillary Clinton's hair. I mean, seriously, she's the secretary of state and all you can talk about is her hair? How about you write posts analyzing Obama's ties?!
    Sorry for the rant - I hope it made sense! ;)
    - Laura

  25. Bottom line is if you appear to be able to take care of yourself, it inspires confidence in people that you might also be able to take care of them, or even the country. This debate is not only limited to female politicians, and also not just about how politicians dress. Take David Cameron for example (not that I support his party), he wears sharp suits and occasionally pictured going for a jog with army officers (clearly staged). What does it say to the people, this PM is disciplined, healthy and knows how to look after himself.

    Can you imagine Boris Johnson standing next to G20 leaders? I can't. Scruff may be endearing to the people (again a calculated image), but I am sure the people wouldn't want scruff representing them on an international playing field.

    So yes, I think it does matter how our leaders dress. Otherwise the old Maggie Thatcher wouldn't have agreed to change a thing and might not have got to where she was.