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Illustration by Jim Fisher

Power Dressing: Political Fashion

Fashion journalist Robb Young's book catalogues stylish women in politics and dissects the sartorial messages of female world leaders and power magnets

It's a sore subject for some. The two should never mix they say. Politics and fashion have nothing to do with each other - or do they!? But how come you like and identity with some politicians whilst with others you have no rapport what so ever? It has, of course, a lot to do with whether you agree on fundamental issues or not - but if you think about it, you can strongly disagree with a friend of yours and still bond over other issues. The thing with fashion and politics - or at least the clothes worn by politicians - is that they say so much about the man behind the policies. Or women, as in the case of author Robb Young's book on female politicians and their wardrobes. 

Young, a fashion journalist, editor and strategic brand consultant, has with 'Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion' recognised an area that has gone unnoticed for far too long. But lately - with our celebrity obsession spreading into politics - it's been given a well-deserved spot in the limelight. Ultimately, what we, and that includeds politicians, wear matters as it's an extension of who we are as individuals. And as such it mirrors the society we live in today. That's why this book is important. 

Dazed Digital: You are clearly knowledgeable about fashion, but are you also interested in politics?
Robb Young: What people tend to forget is that you can look at politics from so many different angles – clothes being just one of the more peculiar ones out there. But politics is also about the personalities behind it and what I was reminded of doing this book was that many of the political women I’ve profiled have had unbelievably fascinating lives. Our experience of politics doesn’t have to be as tedious as it’s often portrayed on the 6:00 news. It can also be told around stories of intriguing people, powerful women – or even their wardrobes…

DD: Why did you combine the two into one book?
Robb Young: There seems to be this tension that looms whenever fashion and politics are mentioned in the same breath. Over the years, I’ve gotten the impression that fashion is still a dirty word in Parliament and the presidential palace. But, I don’t believe it’s necessarily frivolous to ask whether Germans feel more confident in Angela Merkel because she wears a certain kind of trouser suit or to assume that it’s silly to call Winnie Mandela a style icon as well as a freedom fighter. Tension between the two also comes from fashion people, so many of whom have a rather acute and shameful allergy to politics. 

DD: Why focus on women?
Robb Young: It’s simple, really. The ‘style stories’ of political women are usually much more interesting than they are for men because the feminine wardrobe is far more diverse, ambiguous and potentially controversial. For men, the parameters are so neat and narrow – there’s not much that can go exceptionally right or wrong in a suit and tie. Unlike men, political women aren’t afforded the immunity of a ‘uniform’ so the act of getting dressed each morning becomes a statement whether they intended to make one or not. 

DD: Did you acknowledge a difference between a female politician and the wife of a male politician?
Robb Young: Absolutely. There are very different expectations for how first ladies and women politicians should dress because their roles are so different. That’s why I featured first ladies in just two chapters and devoted the remaining chapters purely to women politicians who wield power in their own right

DD:  Are female politicians given a rougher sartorial ride in the media than their male counter parts? If yes, why?
Robb Young: In many ways, they’re damned if they appear to care about what they wear and damned if they don’t. This is a central issue in the book which I come back to time and again. I think it’s part of a chauvinistic hangover that still muddles our political culture and pockets of the media. But I also ask whether a gender bias might not be the only explanation for this sort of unequal scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that women’s clothes are patently more memorable and varied than men’s. The design palette is much more vibrant too.  With women’s fashion, you have the possibility of jewellery and make-up for one. I’ve come across female voters who’ve called a female mayor excessive and out of touch, for example, because her necklace is too big or because her eye shadow is too bright.

DD: Are there any advantages with being a women in politics, from a fashionable point of view?
Robb Young: Looking different isn’t always a disadvantage in politics. When you do want to stand out in certain circumstances, a woman’s wardrobe can be a better tool box than a man’s so, yes, I do think there are rare moments when women have the upper hand because of their clothes. Margaret Thatcher is perhaps one example. She wasn’t always in a skirt-suit of armour as people so often seem to think. She often wore wispy dresses and frothy blouses but she chose to wear them in the company of particular statesmen and on very particular occasions. Usually to her advantage…

DD: Is it connected with the celebrity obsession of the late 20th and early 21st century?
Robb Young: I think so. People are just crying out for alternative style role models. Since first ladies and women politicians are often perceived as women of substance and because the fashion world is notoriously fickle, everyone was keen to move on. My feeling is that this is slowly changing the way we expect political women to dress and that it could even have a lasting effect. The fashion bar has now been raised for women in politics.

DD: Who's the best-dressed female politician, and why?
Robb Young: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s wardrobe has been a mighty impressive barometer for her oscillating power in South Africa over the decades. And in my opinion, she looked as impressive in towering gold turbans, baggy men’s jackets and Xhosa beads as she did in her ladylike blouses and cloche hats of earlier years. The former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was also clever dresser in as far as was successful in shoring up a lot of popular support quickly. Concocting a style based on seemingly opposite references like cosmopolitan luxury and ancient folklore must have seemed crazy to onlookers from abroad but she apparently understood something very particular and very deep about the collective consciousness in Ukraine at the time of the Orange Revolution. 

'Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion' is out now, published by Merrell. Buy it HERE