Politics and Fashion: How Fashion Influences our Perception of Female Politicians

Ryan O'Neill

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Success: it’s in the hair and the power suit (unfortunately)!

Fashion plays a huge role in our lives. We engage with fashion everyday, whether we do it intentionally or not. As a society we like to think that we live our lives judgement free and open minded to whatever clothing choices someone makes, but in reality, that is further from the truth. How we perceive people, and the impressions we make, are largely based on their appearance and how someone presents themselves visually. This is why fashion is so important when it comes to politics, and even more important, when it is female politicians.

Former President Mary McAleese
Former President Mary McAleese – Photo Credit: Flickr Irish Defence Forces

Female politicians are held to a higher standard. As we all know, this is a mans world, and in order for female politicians to succeed, it takes more than just good policies. This is where fashion comes into play.

Former Iirsh President Mary Robinson
Former Iirsh President Mary Robinson – Photo Credit: Flicker Foreign & Commonwealth Office

In Ireland, we have had two female presidents; Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. When we look at their image and fashion choices throughout their presidencies, there are many similarities. Firstly, their hairstyles. Both are short cuts with their hair falling nowhere below their shoulders. During their presidencies, they predominantly wore pantsuits or some variation. They were in bold colours without much frill or design. One noticeable feature of their blazers is the shoulder pads. While shoulder pads were a dominant trend of the 1980s, they continued to be popular for female politicians (although, not as noticeable). Shoulder pads give women the impression of broader shoulders, creating a more masculine frame and build.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – Photo Credit: Flickr Dirk Vorderstraße

The aim of creating a masculine frame for female politicians can tell us a lot about society and how we still view women in powerful positions. A research paper on The Blue Review describes how in politics “femininity is often considered synonymous with weakness, and antithetical to leadership. Typically, masculine traits are preferred in public officials.” Therefore, for female politicians to succeed, they need to appear masculine and ‘strong’ and not appear feminine and ‘weak’, and this can be translated through their fashion choices.

British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May – Photo Credit: Flickr UK Home Office

Theresa May, the second female British Prime Minister and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel also follow similar styles. With similar short haircuts and boxy pantsuits in bold, and sometimes dull colours, you could be mistaken for thinking they all share the same wardrobe. Although, it is clear that there is a pattern forming with regards to female politician’s style.

US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton
US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton – Photo Credit: Flickr Marc Nozell

We can’t talk about female politicians without mentioning 2016 US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her famous pantsuits. Since stepping into the public spotlight when she became First Lady of the United States in 1993, Hillary has been the subject of much tabloid scrutiny about her appearance. Between the style and cut of her hair to the colour and length of her dresses, Hillary Clinton has experienced endless criticism at the expense of her femininity, and if I haven’t convinced you, watch this video of sexist attacks on Hillary:

 

Obviously, none of this is OK. Women, no matter what their profession, should be allowed to dress however they want just like men. If we are going to allow Mick Wallace to waltz in to the Dáil donning his signature pink polo neck t-shirt, then women should be allowed to dress in the female equivalent of skinny jeans and Ugg boots ( again, none of this is OK, professional attire is appropriate no matter what gender), but the point stands that we need to extend the courtesy of not dictating and solely focusing on a politicians image to women, and instead focus on the policies, experience and dedication they bring to their jobs.

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Ryan O'Neill