Women in politics

posted in: Style advice | 17

I can’t stop thinking about Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.

Why do they wear the same, rather unusual clothes? What’s with the frumpy “pant suit”? And why get one made in every colour under the sun, including yellow and orange? Why as an alternative to the pant suits do they chose black trousers with a colourful, buttoned up jacket? What does it say and why do they do it?hillary and angela with woman

This photograph of them together is interesting. Looking at the legs only, we cannot distinguish Angela from Joe. But while the powerful women are wearing the pants, Mrs Biden is obviously a “wife” in her feminine red dress, high heeled platform shoes, nail varnished toes, and long blonde flick ups. But the two powerful women have chosen to make a different statement with their outfits, and seem to following the same path.

Hillary, who visited the UK this week, and Angela, are both enormously bright, with great ability and determination. But women in world politics, especially at the highest levels, are rare, and they have to fit into predominantly male environments. At the same time they can’t just get a tailored pin stripe suit and shirt in case they look too much like a man, as Spitting Image envisaged.


Both Hillary and Angela are of average female height at around  5′ 6″. They choose  bright colours because they need to stand out. In a sea of charcoal world leaders an orange or lime outfit will ensure that the media spot them, and their clothes will help them make an impact. (Think of the Queen, who invariably wears coloured dresses, coats and hats).

Rainbow jackets
Rainbow jackets
Rainbow pant suits
Rainbow pant suits

Men’s wear from the waist down (dark trousers and sensible footwear) with a high cut, colourful blazer has become a new uniform to replace variations on the 80’s power suit.

Kate Middleton will tell you that wearing a dress for public events is always a risk – one gust of wind and your underwear, or worse, is splashed all over the internet. Five denier “nude” tights and high heels don’t just make women look frail and in need of a hand. In fact they rule out most leader-type activities such as going on building sites, climbing a ladder or walking purposefully around a factory, for example. Practicality partly explains the Clinton-Merkel formula – flat shoes and trousers ensure you are ready for any eventuality. But while sensible clothes are important for women in the public eye, something else is going on here.

Both Hillary and Angela have hour glass figures. Their oddly shaped outfits are designed specifically to negate their shape rather than celebrate it. The high top-button on a  boxy-cut jacket serves to hide both bust and waist. The dated, and very unflattering, jacket length combined with lose fitting dark trousers swamp the hips and bottom. Merkel and Clinton are trying very hard to look the opposite of alluring and sexually attractive. In my view, although neither is overweight, their outfits make them look both shorter and wider than they really are. They remind me of the Mao suit.

Chairman and Madam Mao
Chairman and Madam Mao

Are they saying they won’t conform to stereotypical images of women? Or that  they are so powerful and important that they don’t care what others think? I sometimes think they are having a laugh.

Other female political leaders have worked on the same problem but come up with rather more attractive solutions. Take ChristineLagarde. She sticks to neutrals and invariably wears a suit or dress which emphasises her shape (she is athletic rather than slim, and she is as tall as many men at 5′ 10″). She matches her classic outfits with beautiful accessories, especially scarves in luxury fibres like silk or cashmere. She has natural, uncoloured hair, currently worn in a great cut, sensible flat footwear  and simple silver jewellery that really enhances her complexion.

Light grey dress and jacket with turquoise and tan scarf
Light grey dress and jacket with turquoise and tan scarf
A simple grey dress and jacket with red shoulder bag
A simple grey dress and jacket with red shoulder bag
Dark navy trousers, woolen scarf and shoes with red jacket
Dark navy trousers, woollen scarf, suede shoes with red jacket

Christine wears feminine clothes in quiet colours using bright colours in her accessories. She looks fabulous. It’s a more typically French look, but it is an approach I think works well for powerful women. It’s a way to fit in (tailored, dark suits) without losing femininity. What do you think?

17 Responses

  1. Joyce

    Hi Kate,
    I think we need another Jacqueline Kennedy! I have just read the novel http://nmkelby.com/www.nmkelby.com/The_Pink_Suit.html , based on a true story. I saw the jacket cover in the library and took it home, mostly to expose myself to the couture chatter I knew would be inside- its like I cant get enough of that kind of language… the romance story , I can take or leave (mostly leave but this wasn’t thick on the sweet so I could stomach it….yes, Im a realist ha ha.) Ms.Lagarde is an excellent example of style and grace……….and power- you go girl!

    • fabrickated

      First ladies are somewhat different from female political leaders although their clothes fascinate too. I loved Jackie’s look, and generally Michelle Obama gets it right too. But there is a clear difference between Hillary as first lady, and as presidential candidate, don’t you think? I always read her as unhappy with her appearance – to such an extent that she rebels and wears the scrunchie, or scruffy long hair, or horrible trousers almost as a feminist protest.

      • Joyce

        Yikes I just typed a message and it disappeared… let me try to repeat myself.
        I was saying………..do you think these type of women spend a lot of time thinking of such things…or do they not let their “public relations” people do that kind of work for them. ? Im going to admit…I am ignorant in these affairs…….however..if I was in such a powerful position I would not want to be represented as …..well…square (ha ha)… forgive me, I am not overly involved in politics, I rarely watch the news..I don’t read newspapers……..(much to The Mr’s frustrations).
        Wouldn’t it be Fabulous…….if you were my stylist!! oh what fun. You are so much more confident then I will ever be…….you would say…..”wear this” ……and I would say “Ok”. :~ ))

  2. Kristy

    I recently came across a blog called Ladypockets which examines what influential women around the world wear. Some people criticized it as trivializing the role of these women by focusing on their clothes, but I think it’s good to have positive role models and that there need not be a disconnect between looking your personal best and doing your professional best

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for this Kirsty. I agree with your point of view. I think the that appearance matters and applies to men too. As women moved from the land, into factories, then offices, then executive roles and politics they had to adapt their dress and it is interesting and important to understand what our clothes are “saying” about us, whether we like it or not.

  3. S

    Came to your blog through the sporty sewathon – love your outfit by the way. I’m very impressed with your printing – gorgeous.

    This entry caught my eye as I am a senior economist in the public sector and think about the issue quite a bit. Because I work on the quantitative side of things, I tend to be the only woman on the team or at least one of the few. I have greatly neutralized the femininity of my style over the years, especially when I have important meetings, as a result of the difference in the way that I am treated when I wear dresses and heels, for example (and especially as I have an ample bust). I absolutely loathe getting attention for my appearance when I am trying to get traction with my ideas. I have worked internationally in a diplomatic environment, including in the US, and I would say that your analysis is spot on.

    Angela Merkel is a physicist, which I think can probably also partly explain her style. I was previously in academia where the women in my field and in the hard sciences almost always were quite masculine in their dress and behaviours. Christine Lagarde, who is also a style icon of mine, especially for the fact that she has natural grey hair, is a bit different. She’s a lawyer (as is Hillary, of course), but also spent many years in private practise in the US. Women are more common in high-level circles in law than in physics, for example, and a more chic business-wear style is the standard. The fact that Lagarde is French is also a factor, as you note, and it’s great that you pointed out her athletic figure as that makes a difference in what she can wear without over-emphasizing her curves, for example. Good analysis.

  4. Yarnbeth

    I just found your blog because of Carolyn’s and the SWAP – congrats on the win! I really enjoyed your analysis here, and I think you are right as to the forces driving these women. And I agree Christine has done it the best by far of the ones mentioned. At the least the other two should get some help to make sure what they wear is tailored to fit them, and while they may want to wear bright colors, to only wear the ones that really suit their coloring!

  5. Canal Couture

    I’m very interested in this particular topic. Loved reading your analysis and the other commentator’s. I always wonder wether women like Hillary and Angela really would be taken any less serious if they would dress more feminine. To me it sometimes seems like an urban myth that is enforced among women. I think it’s important to make a distinction between dressing feminine and dressing sexy. It would be refreshing to see a female politician carrying her femininity with pride, instead of trying so hard to blend in with the guys.

  6. Sarah

    I think it’s a lot to do with body shape. I can’t think of any woman over 50 who looks good/dresses well who isn’t slim or at least has a defined waist (e.g. Nigella Lawson) or who doesn’t have to dress for work in a reasonably conventional way (e.g. Vivienne Westwood).

    You’re kind in describing Hillary and Angela as ‘hour glass’. They may have been so when young but they now seem to have that rather ill-defined shape of most older women who are a stone or two heavier than they were. Dressed identically to the other two, Christine Lagarde would still look much better – and more business like – because of her height and build.

    But you’re right, they could do better – lose the clownish colours, get a better fit (and better underwear?). If it were me, I think I’d go for the fitted dress and coat/jacket option – it works for the Queen.

    • fabrickated

      Hour glass is the basic shape – this doesn’t change if you put on a little weight. What I mean is that they do actually have waists, but the clothes negate them. Belts and shaping at the waist give definition to the slimmest part of a woman’s body, and give an overall impression of shapeliness. Do I think tall and slim is more pleasing that short and fat? Yes, but we all have to work with what we have got. I have seen a few picture of Hillary looking OK, but not many. Bright colours are OK if they work with your natural colouring, but otherwise they do have that “clownish” effect. As Joyce says a good stylist and competent tailor would be able to help quite a lot!

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for sharing such an interesting article Rose. I am still pondering what a powerful woman should wear. I tend to agree with Sarah, Canal Couture and Yarnbeth that getting a better fit to your shape would be a start, and to be willing to celebrate ones femininity rather than avoid it. In the article the powerful women fear being taken for “an assistant” – I think good clothes help but you need to have faith in your own authority as well as getting it from above and below.

  7. Karine

    This is an interesting subject ! Mrs Merkel and Mrs Clinton’s clothes are terrible. The point is that when I see these ladies on TV, I keep thinking “why ?” and don’t listen to what they’re saying. What do you think of Mrs Thatcher’s clothes ? Would she wear a yellow suit if she was in charge nowadays ?

    • fabrickated

      Thanks for your feedback Karine. Mrs Thatcher took quite a lot of advice on her clothes and I think she dressed well for her age, shape and position. I think she was going for a dignified look and that would have ruled out a yellow pant suit! After she died we had quite a few documentaries on her and I found the clothes side of her image making very interesting indeed. I think I got the phrase “lose the hat” from the film, which was also very interesting.

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