For Women In Politics, Personal Style Is A Game Of Chess With The Patriarchy

Since the 19th century, when suffragists were forced to ditch their pantaloons and strictures in the U.S. Senate forbade women’s pants, women in politics have been obstructed in their pursuit of self-expression.

It isn’t unusual for dress codes to be used as a form of control over women. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was advised to forego her signature red nails for her confirmation hearings in 2009. In 2012, then-Cabinet member Cecile Duflot’s blue and white dress had French Parliament members hooting and whistling, as one deputy shouted, “Go on, unbutton that dress!” And just this September, Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova was rapped for her choice of dress as she and other Cabinet members were inaugurated.

Teresa Bellanova stood out from her fellow Italian politicians in a vivid blue dress at the oath of office for members of Italy's Cabinet in Rome on Sept. 5.

Teresa Bellanova stood out from her fellow Italian politicians in a vivid blue dress at the oath of office for members of Italy’s Cabinet in Rome on Sept. 5.

It’s clear that women in government are expected to downplay their femininity ― but just enough to not be labeled frumpy or severe. There was and still is a tendency to view “femininity as artifice and masculinity as substance,” wrote gender studies professor Shira Tarrant in the book “Fashion Talks.” When then-U.S. President Barack Obama admitted that he kept his wardrobe choices to a minimum to avoid decision fatigue, it underscored that such a decision doesn’t always have the same outcome for women. In a conversation with Time, Rhonda Garelick, professor of fashion studies at Parsons School of Design in New York, asked us to consider “how much more it takes a young woman to dress in a way that speaks to power, when her male colleague simply has to put on a dark suit.”

Philosopher Cressida Heyes wrote in “Fashion Talks” that “refusal on the part of the feminist subject to style herself in any way ― to be uninvolved, neutral or natural ― is impossible,” thus making a woman’s appearance loaded in a way a man’s dark suit does not. It could be argued that this has been a small part of why Anita Hill wasn’t believed, why Hillary Clinton evokes visceral hatred, why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is patronized and why Laura Boldrini, former president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, was repeatedly threatened with rape and murder.

It also explains why the monochrome pantsuit, essentially a feminized men’s suit, is the sartorial DNA of power.

Today, women in government are subverting this gendered dress code. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s elaborate, symbolism-steeped collars, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s macaron-hued blazers and the high drama of former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s shoes are examples.

Theresa May wore leopard-print heels to enter 10 Downing Street on July 13, 2016, in London as she became the U.K.'s second female prime minister.

Theresa May wore leopard-print heels to enter 10 Downing Street on July 13, 2016, in London as she became the U.K.’s second female prime minister.

Women’s work wardrobes are noteworthy in that “they reveal a point of view on identity that is as accessible as, and perhaps even more recognizable than, any mission statement,” wrote Vanessa Friedman in the book “Dress Like A Woman.”

But Megha Anwer, who teaches literature, film and visual culture at Purdue University in Indiana, cautions against a literal reading of personal style. Anwer told HuffPost she believes that a big part of fashion in politics is still “women playing by rules that the men formulate and participating in structures of power that men monopolize, rather than questioning power itself.”

Hillary Clinton, Democratic Presidential Nominee

For her 2016 White House campaign, Clinton’s wardrobe was a sleek refresh on the 1990s power suit. The conservative cuts and popping tones made for pleasant visual tension. She cut down on the textured jackets from her years as secretary of state for a clean, memorable aesthetic. It invited comment on nothing except color, yet felt like the opposite of boring. She also one- upped the rolled shirt sleeves that male politicians employ on campaign trails, working the crowds in a shorter sleeve that signaled battle readiness.

Her hair, the subject of years of misogynistic scrutiny, curved gently around her face, like a warrior’s helmet but minus the severity. Author Roxane Gay called this look “a rallying symbol for women eager to see a woman president in their lifetime.”

“Politics is hell in general,” said author Margaret Atwood in conversation with classicist and historian Mary Beard for ”Front Row Late” on BBC Two, “but I think it’s probably double hell for women because not only do you have to have a position, you have to have a hairstyle.”

Hillary Clinton during a 2015 campaign event in Glen, New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton during a 2015 campaign event in Glen, New Hampshire.
Clinton during an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Sept. 8, 2015.

Clinton during an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Sept. 8, 2015.
Clinton at a rally on Nov. 9, 2015, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Clinton at a rally on Nov. 9, 2015, in Concord, New Hampshire.
Clinton speaking in New York on Nov. 19, 2015.

Clinton speaking in New York on Nov. 19, 2015.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister

Atwood’s comments may be true for Clinton, but not so much for Ardern, who became her country’s prime minister two years ago. Ardern’s low-key style feels like an extension of her community-first politics and relatable life choices ― she’s worn thrift store clothes and wears her hair lightly styled in defiance of the shiny, over-coiffed standard. She dresses like a regular office worker who’s down for drinks with her mates at the local pub, and that quality is important to her: New Zealand’s national values emphasize kindness and bonhomie. She accessorizes with unusual architectural pieces ― it’s hard to imagine her in pearls ― and she’s worn a korowai and a headscarf to signal empathy and solidarity with the Maori and Muslim communities.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to Parliament during the 2018 budget presentation on May 17, 2018, in Wellington, New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to Parliament during the 2018 budget presentation on May 17, 2018, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Ardern waits for Prince William, Duke of Cambridge to arrive at Masjid Al Noor mosque on April 26, 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The mosque was one of two in the community targeted in a mass shooting the month before in which 50 people were killed.

Ardern waits for Prince William, Duke of Cambridge to arrive at Masjid Al Noor mosque on April 26, 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The mosque was one of two in the community targeted in a mass shooting the month before in which 50 people were killed.
Ardern meets with Muslim community representatives on March 16, 2019, in the wake of the massacres at the mosques.

Ardern meets with Muslim community representatives on March 16, 2019, in the wake of the massacres at the mosques.
Ardern speaks at a church on Nov. 7, 2018, in Ratana, New Zealand.

Ardern speaks at a church on Nov. 7, 2018, in Ratana, New Zealand.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Prime Minister of Iceland

Jakobsdottir is a political and sartorial outlier. She’s a crime fiction specialist and environmentalist whose progressive policies, aimed at closing the wage gap and achieving carbon neutrality, are a lesson in ethical leadership. Her style is all about uncontrived sophistication. It’s also recognizably Nordic, featuring clean lines, dark basics and pops of primary color. But her style is far from the ubiquitous pantsuit ― she’s worn a cropped sweater with a drapey midi skirt and heeled oxfords to a press conference with Merkel and is often seen in the same shoe, rare for a world leader. In a departure from the monochrome aesthetic preferred by parliamentarians worldwide, she’s worn a playful color-blocked knit for a policy speech in her nation’s Parliament.

Iceland Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir (right) prepares to talk to journalists with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 19, 2018, in Berlin.

Iceland Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir (right) prepares to talk to journalists with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 19, 2018, in Berlin.
Jakobsdottir and Merkel during their meeting in Berlin.

Jakobsdottir and Merkel during their meeting in Berlin.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland

Sturgeon was once nicknamed “nippy sweetie,” Scottish slang for a belligerent old woman. By her own account, she appropriated the confrontational style of her male colleagues in order to fit in. Her wardrobe reflected this effort; she wore safe colors and boxy cuts. But she’s come into her own both politically and sartorially recently, embracing vulnerability in a way most world leaders don’t and speaking openly of a miscarriage and imposter syndrome. Her new look is hyperfeminine: Both color and detail are worn with evident relish. She’s usually dressed top to toe in a single warm color and her jackets nip gently at the high waist for an elegant signature silhouette.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on the way to take questions from Parliament members on March 22, 2018, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on the way to take questions from Parliament members on March 22, 2018, in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Sturgeon headed for another of Parliament's question sessions on May 31, 2018.

Sturgeon headed for another of Parliament’s question sessions on May 31, 2018.
Sturgeon arriving at Parliament on Sept. 4, 2018.

Sturgeon arriving at Parliament on Sept. 4, 2018.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

Merkel was 36 years old and living in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Instead of joining the excited crowds, the physicist kept her weekly sauna appointment. That unflappability and self-restraint have informed both her leadership and personal style. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl gave her the patronizing nickname madchen (little girl) in the ’90s, Merkel was every bit the loyal apprentice in her pageboy hair and Soviet-palette blazers.

Today, as Germany’s chancellor since 2005, she is simultaneously central to her country’s political character and the most powerful woman in the world. An asceticism marks her style; it is part uniform, part identity. Fashion critics have been unkind to her; her outfits have been called mumsy, plodding and unimaginative. Unfazed, she has stuck with an endlessly efficient formula ― identically cut blazers in an array of colors, and dark trousers. In this she embodies a solidity and conviction that Germans have come to appreciate. Her style “demonstrated consistency and prudence, two qualities generally prized in German politics,” wrote Robb Young in the book “Power Dressing.

Angela Merkel as she took office on Oct. 11, 1991, as the German government's minister for women and youth.

Angela Merkel as she took office on Oct. 11, 1991, as the German government’s minister for women and youth.
Merkel with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1993.

Merkel with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1993.
Merkel at a political gathering on Dec. 10, 2014, in Cologne, Germany.

Merkel at a political gathering on Dec. 10, 2014, in Cologne, Germany.
Merkel arrives for a Cabinet meeting on March 18, 2015, in Berlin.

Merkel arrives for a Cabinet meeting on March 18, 2015, in Berlin.

Margot Wallstrom, Foreign Minister of Sweden

“A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you,” wrote Ways of Seeingauthor John Berger on the nature of perception. “By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Abuse survivor Margot Wallstrom made it her life’s mission to change that truth.

As Sweden’s foreign minister, she authored what has been touted as the world’s first feminist foreign policy. She has condemned Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women as “medieval,” and made Sweden the first European country to recognize the Palestine state.

Swedes’ love of the color black is well documented; commoners and parliamentarians alike present a sea of sameness. Against that backdrop, Wallstrom’s twinkling glasses, patterned scarves and vibrant jackets feel deliberate and disruptive. She likes her occasional all-black ensembles offset with an effervescent floral or geometric print. She also likes to sport a mesh or crochet detail in an expression of femininity in a country where a socio-cultural thrust on gender equality and a love of minimalist, androgynous clothing may have shrunk the space for conventional feminine expression.

Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom at the United Nations headquarters in New York on July 11, 2018.

Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom at the United Nations headquarters in New York on July 11, 2018.
Wallstrom holds a press conference during a meeting of the foreign ministers of Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in Helsinki, Finland, on March 19, 2019.

Wallstrom holds a press conference during a meeting of the foreign ministers of Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in Helsinki, Finland, on March 19, 2019.

Flavia Kleiner, Swiss political activist

For 25 years, Switzerland has been the stronghold of Europe’s most roaringly successful right-wing party. Its nationalistic, anti-immigrant agenda rankled political activist Flavia Kleiner into battle. In a historic upset, her referendum defeated a proposal to deport immigrants for such ridiculously trivial offenses as speeding. Kleiner is working to halt the rise of the far-right in style; her fashion marries the looks of a Silicon Valley exec and a continental political matriarch. She’s mostly in dark jeans, collared shirts and gracefully slouchy outerwear. Her jewel-toned trenches are reminiscent of the uniforms of Merkel and Sturgeon.

Flavia Kleiner cheers at a rally in Bern, Switzerland, after the rejection of an anti-immigrant initiative by Swiss voters on Feb. 28, 2016.

Flavia Kleiner cheers at a rally in Bern, Switzerland, after the rejection of an anti-immigrant initiative by Swiss voters on Feb. 28, 2016.

Atishi, Indian politician and activist

The Indian politician and activist who simply goes by the name Atishi has won transpartisan acclaim for her ongoing reform of the public school system in the national capital, New Delhi. Languishing from decades of apathy, to many the public school infrastructure seemed a lost cause and represented the death of India’s socialist ideals. Atishi delivered a stunning turnaround. She dresses in the humble cotton salvaar-kameez worn by working-class North Indian women. It is a conscious rejection of the pale, crisp saris favored by the power elite. In contrast, her garments look lived in, a testament to her pavement-pounding activism.

Atishi arrives to attend a meeting in New Delhi on May 3, 2017.

Atishi arrives to attend a meeting in New Delhi on May 3, 2017.
Atishi at her home on June 2, 2015, in Noida, India.

Atishi at her home on June 2, 2015, in Noida, India.

When it is not a matter of a tradeoff between patriarchy and ambition, the wardrobe choices of a woman in politics can be an asset. When Ocasio-Cortez wore big gold hoops to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, she tweeted that it was so that “next time when someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman.” When Sudanese anti-government protestor Alaa Salah wore the traditional toub to her singing protests, she channeled the Nubian warrior queens who led armies into battle.

One only hopes that one day women in politics won’t have to play sartorial chess with the patriarchy. That they will be able to step into their power as effortlessly as their male colleagues, without expending undue effort on wardrobe choices. It’s a fair and reasonable hope.