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?
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).
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.
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.
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?