Women up front and the clothes they favour

“Either way, however, we are edging into a time when it is possible to conceive of an era in which women not only run the world, but also don’t have to don mufti to do it.”


‘Mufti’ immediately brings to mind Angela Merkel, now dubbed "the heart and soul of Europe in tolerance" after she took the bold step of opening the doors of Germany to one million asylum seekers from the Syrian region – "the most generous, open hearted gesture of recent history." She has been Chancellor for ten years and is de facto head of the European Union. TIME magazine selected her as the 2015 Person of the Year. Merkel is most often dressed in coloured blazers and black pants – her mufti and her idea that one needs to look in command, masculine in other words in man-dominated politics. Her concession to feminity is the varied colours of the jackets she wears. Maybe her upbringing by her father who shifted to East Germany and ran a Lutheran seminary in Waldhof for short term visitors and mentally disturbed adults laid the foundation for her stark fashion preference. At 17, in school in Templin, she realized she was living within walls of a fortress. For 35 years she was captive in state run East Germany and gathered and self nurtured qualities of patience, blandness, intellectual vigor, inconspicuousness mixed with ferocious drive. Watching the Berlin Wall fall on November 9, 1989, when she was in a restaurant with a friend, she crossed over and that walk was the first step taken to being THE Woman in Europe. Her choice of clothes to me has been conditioned or dictated to by her past.


WASP Women

Hillary Clinton too favours trousers but hers are trouser suits, often of the same colour. She and Theresa May, two women much in the public eye of now, quietly but unquestionably, change the rules about what it means to look like a president or prime minister. It doesn’t have to mean looking like a man in female colors. And Mrs. Clinton has declared allegiance to trouser suits, the ones she settled on when she began her political career after the White House. As first lady, she tended toward the pastel and the classic and the skirt, but when she began her Senate campaign, she wore only black trouser suits. So said a recent article. "And though that soon gave way to tone-on-tone colors, they have become the symbol of the before and after stages in her life: from behind-the-scenes power, wife and helpmate to candidate in her own right."

Theresa May is very interesting in her personal life and more so in her taste for clothes, more especially footwear. Like Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Ms. May was born into a middle-class family. She was educated at Oxford, where she belonged to the Conservative Association and the Oxford Union, a debating society known for producing future leaders. At a Conservative Association dance in 1976, she was introduced to Philip May, her future husband, by Benazir Bhutto, a fellow student.

She is an avid cookbook collector – having more than a hundred. To relax, Ms. May has said she enjoys cooking and taking long walks in the countryside.

At the Women in the World summit last October, in an interview on stage with Tina Brown, Ms. May said: "I’m a woman, I like clothes. One of the challenges for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is to be ourselves, and to say you can be clever and like clothes." She told the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs that if she were cast away, her "luxury item" would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

She is known for her eclectic footwear, and entirely unabashed about her own interest in fashion. She’s been seen in various kinds of shoes and boots ranging from leopard-print kitten heels to lipstick-print ballet flats and patent leather over-the-knee boots. This last, reportedly, she wore to greet the president of Mexico in Buckingham Palace. When she moved to No 10 Downing Street, succeeding David Cameron to the premiership, she wore a pair of leopard dotted shoes as seen on TV.

I read that an oft-repeated story these days involves Ms. May meeting a young woman in the House of Commons who was wearing a trendy pair of shoes. "I said I liked them, and she said my shoes were the reason she became involved in politics," Ms. May said.

"She has refused to admit that caring about fashion is irreconcilable with caring about, say, nuclear policy, and in doing so she is setting a precedent that allows women to use clothes to express a facet." The prime minister has even indicated that fashion may be a political advantage, calling her shoes an "icebreaker." (Reportedly, this parallels similar stories from the former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who wrote an entire book, "Read My Pins," about her strategic use of jewelry, which she called "part of my personal diplomatic arsenal" during her time in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.)


First Lady

The New York Times mentioned in an article that "Michelle Obama arguably established a new model, abandoning the first-lady-in-skirt-suits fashion generally adopted by both Laura and Barbara Bush as well as Nancy Reagan, and using a dress to project a less fussy, traditional persona and her right to bare arms." She is dressed stunningly and carries her clothes with aplomb being tall and slim and showing a can’t-hide strong personality.

"I think America, and the electorate, is finally ready to embrace the fact that the idea of women politicians wearing something that is fun and feminine, is now accepted without it being an issue," said Lyn Paolo, the well known film costume designer. "It’s about time. And I am really proud of her that she is trying new things," referring to Michele Obama.

Clothes are important; they make statements, mostly about the wearer. And thus women in politics and in the limelight like Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama and Theresa May are looked at very critically and if they are dressed well, with admiration. A comment about Mrs Clinton goes thus: "And certainly, it’s easier to depart from expectations after you’ve won than it is to rock the boat beforehand. And everyone’s focus should be on Mrs. Clinton’s words, her clothes just a useful tool to support them."


Local women VVIPs

What about fashions and what our women in the public eye wore and wear? Conservative is the word that comes to mind, epitomized by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike. She always wore the Kandyan sari with sleeved blouses, mostly Indian silks for functions. Her sari was rather high on her waist as often happens with the Kandyan drape. She invariably had embroidered borders cut from the sari she wore stitched as borders on her sleeves which were above the elbow. Chandrika Kumaratunge was more adventurous in her clothes as Prime Minister for a short while and two terms as President. She wore the Indian drape and the Kandyan style. A picture perfect image I have in mind of her is her elegant in a rich coral silk sari waiting to receive Pope John Paul II in January 1995. She was young and so beautiful. Our president’s wife of today is ultra conservative but it suits her persona: shy, retiring and pointedly taking second place to her husband. Not so Hema Premadasa who exhibited her exuberant, friendly nature in the clothes she wore, often flamboyantly designed and tailored Kandyan saris. We even saw her in her tennis kit of divided skirt and T-Shirt. Shiranthi Rajapakse seemed very concerned and conscious of what she wore, fitted very tight while Mrs J R J was simple and dignified from head to toe. But not one of them wore sleeveless blouses for formal and semi-formal occasions. They were all elegant and we women took pride in seeing them so well turned out.

A final quote which expresses much: "Clothes as text, clothes as narration, clothes as a story. Clothes as the story of our lives. And if you were to gather all the clothes you have ever owned in all your life, you would have your autobiography." 

? Linda Grant in The Thoughtful Dresser.

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