Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The piece we've been wanting to read about politics and fashion

Since we've decided that we are not going to discuss the issues in the US elections, I have been looking for a way of talking about fashion and politics which doesn't demean the candidates and their wives/husbands with spiteful tabloid finger-pointing.

But Sarah Mower in the Telegraph today has a superb piece which gets to the root of why women women politicians look fantastic and others do don't and I really do recommend reading the whole thing:

Looking at the women at political party conventions in America is riveting. Michelle Obama looks brilliant in her fitted dresses by the American designer Maria Pinto, with expertly placed Erickson Beamon flower brooches. Cindy McCain and Jill Biden win admiration for their non-prissy blonde grooming and efficient separates. Even the creationist Sarah Palin can't be accused of turning up from Alaska and looking like a moose - whatever we think of her views.

 (Top, from left) Republicans Sarah Palin and Cindy McCain, Democrats Jill Biden and Michelle Obama. Labour ladies Tessa Jowell, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Harriet Harman
Powerdressing (top, from left): Republicans Sarah Palin and Cindy McCain, Democrats Jill Biden and Michelle Obama. Power underdressing (above, from left): Labour ladies Tessa Jowell, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Harriet Harman

This all amounts to a world first, I think. It is the first collective image of modern, middle-aged, powerful females whose attractiveness requires no clarification. They are not, for example, "fabulous… for their age" or "OK… for a politician". These women are fabulous fabulous. Full stop.

Why? It's no coincidence that they are the first cohort that does not regard fashion as a threat to their gravitas. Hillary Clinton and her "sisterhood of travelling pant suits" did, which led to her very publicly ducking out of an American Vogue feature during her campaign - a move that did nothing for her dignity. Their old school, atavistic feminist fear is that associating with fashion is a vote loser, but it is fast looking like the mark of the political yester-woman. In America, at any rate, the influence of fashion and the industry behind it are being taken seriously by the new generation of politicians.

Next Tuesday, during New York Fashion Week, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, will co-host an Obama fundraiser - her second this year - with Sarah Jessica Parker. It's a fashion show at which guests paying $10,000 a ticket will get to preview the work of Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler. The first event, which was attended by Mrs Obama in June, had a two-tier ticket structure: $1,000 to attend a reception, or $10,000 to chat to the senator's wife over an intimate lunch at Calvin Klein's place. Clearly the Obama campaign sees no danger in being associated with glamorous achievers in the fashion industry, even now that the last run to the White House is in sight.

But would it happen here? The nearest British politicians have come to tapping the influence - and cash - of fashion industry figures was the Conservatives' Black and White Ball in February, which was creatively directed by Anya Hindmarch, and attended by Tamara Mellon of Jimmy Choo, Nadja Swarovski, Amanda Wakeley, Joseph Ettedgui and Belle Robinson of Jigsaw. Still, the £300-a-head admission looks like a junior jape compared with the American money Ms Wintour pulls in.

But I'd like to add a note of caution to Mower's account. I think she may well be right about feminism worrying that dressing well might interfere with their gravitas, or not having the time to shop or money ofr a stylist. With the exception of Sarah Palin, these are all candidates wives. The top row, and the bottom row of British politicians, is notable for the fact that the Americans are reed slim while the Brits are, um a little dumpy. The question is, can these women dress very well given their body shape and on their MP's salaries? The British fashion industry could come to the rescue and dress them, but does Vivienne Westwood a) make anything suitable b) make anything in size 16 (that's a US 12.)


greying pixie said...

I don't think Vivienne W could dress them, although I'm sure she would love the challenge, but what's wrong with Jaeger, Pringle, Ballentyne, Aquascutum, Burberry ... the list is endless? The trouble is that we have forgotten what Britain does best - really well made classics, of the sort that the Italians drool over, save up for, and wear beautifully.

What our female politicians need is a training session on deportment and grooming. The rest would take of itself. Witness the wonderful and impeccably turned out Betty Boothroyd.

Personally I don't like the American look, either Hilary's or the more feminine one. I find it rather sterile and humourless. It's all rather a parody of Jackie O, who incidentally fought to be allowed to wear French designers, and was a true pioneer of style and fashion.

Linda Grant said...

When Sarah Brown wore a white Jaeger jacket for the Sarkozy state visit, she looked appalling, not because it was a bad jacket, but because it was totally wrong for her shape. She's typical of those who are top heavy with great legs. All the attention was drawn to the starburst pattern on her shoulders. This is elementary stuff, you have to wonder if anyone was advising her.

But you're quite right about Betty Boothroyd, and indeed Madeleine Albright, who appeared on world's best dressed women lists, despite her size and shape.

gp said...

Yes, Sarah Brown did look awful. And it didn't help her having to stand next to Carla. I think the problem is trying to fit into the jacket and skirt mold. Carla looked lovely, not only because of her personal charisma, pretty face, etc., but because she didn't try to fit that sterile bank clerk look. Apart from Armani and Chanel, I really think jackets are very difficult to wear, especially with a large bust.

But on a slightly different but related note - I think this whole fashion v politics thing is interesting from a psychological perspective. Do you think we are more forgiving of women whose political values are in agreement with ours?

Geraldine said...

Are the British female politicians pictured dumpy? Placed next to the woman above, maybe. But it's just as likely to be the angle of the camera or bad posture. I don't think of Harriet Harman as dumpy - I always thought she was quite tall and slim and heather Blears appears quite petite. if they're dumpy, then all the rest of us British size 12/14's are dumpy too, which is quite sad because as someone five six and a size I2 I always saw myself as being quite slim. Till now.

Judith in Umbria said...

Is it fair to compare the US women at arguably the most important affair they will attend in a decade to women who are moving about in their normal everyday lives?

It's not a bad idea for the British women to seek advice so as not to waste money on clothes that don't do the job. We Americans certainly do.

It doesn't matter one bit if gp likes their look or not, the point is will the voters like it?

Jackie O didn't play around with the look until after JFK won the election. She did not invent American style, she just brought it a lot more attention than we'd had before.

greying pixie said...

judith in umbria is right - it matters not one jot whether I like the American style or not. It is merely my opinion.

Regarding the Jackie O look, what she was good at was dipping into current fashion and making elements of it her own. Apart from that beautiful purple dress, I don't see much of that going on with the other American females mentioned. The only thing I will remember about Palin in years to come is her rather overcrowded head - staged messy hairstyle, unimaginative glasses, (was she wearing earrings too?) - too distracting by far!

lagatta à montréal said...

I don't really like the American look either - it is too controlled, and except for such staged TV appearances features rather garish colour, overstyled, helmet-headed hairdos etc. It is always jarring when a crew of journalists arrive from the US - the presenters look like plastic people, not that presenters on Radio-Canada/CBC are ill-groomed (and some are very stylish indeed). Obviously not all people in the US (speaking of those with means and in the public view) dress that way by any means, but for some reason that "Entertainment Today" look has been mediatised.

True, as Groucho Marx said, that kind of look might well "play in Peoria". I remember John Kerry's wife Teresa (Heinz) being slagged for her "messy" hair - but her less-plastic style would play better in many other Western countries.

But only Palin is an elected politician among the group of US women.

rb said...

I know almost no women in the real US who dress like newscasters. That is a particular look all its own.

rb said...

P.S. I say "almost" because I do know one newscaster. (And she doesn't dress like that off-air.)

lagatta à montréal said...

rb, I wasn't referring to women in the real US. None of my friends in places like NYC or Boston, whether fashionistas or not, dress anything like that. I am terribly sorry if that came across like saying women in the US dress in such a plastic way! There is virtually no difference between the way women dress in the US and English-speaking Canada, and Québec finds itself somewhere between North American and European style.

Was it a Hollywood creation, or something else?

I'm thinking that Margaret Thatcher had a definite and affirmed style - not a style I'm fond of, far from it, but certainly recognisable.

bonnie-ann black said...

as an american woman, i can tell you i find the way that these "reed thin" women are portrayed as fashion role models is a pain in the... well, an area that many women worry about. at least your politicians look like women who might be identified with... the women pictured are politicans' *wives* for the most part (as pointed out)and they are dressed to accessorize the candidates. hilary clinton may not have had the most forward fashion sense, but you know what? she looked like a *busy* woman, a woman who *did* things -- not just hung on the arm of a man who might wind up being powerful. and any woman of any size and shape could dress well and stylishly -- but did you ever see any designer offer to dress Tipper Gore - who loooked more like a typical woman (not just american woman) than ever did jackie kennedy or that walking coat hanger, nancy reagan. i love clothes and shoes, but i can't believe it's the 21st century and it's still what women wear that make them "interesting." i'm waiting for the day someone says, "Poor choice Gordon Brown made with that Burberry trenchcoat there." or "Why does John McCain insist on wearing that dark blue that just washes him out and makes his arms look even smaller!" does anyone offer to give deportment lessons to Colin Hansen?

Deja Pseu said...

Personally, I think the American Political Wife/Newscaster look steps too far into Stepford Wives territory.

Anonymous said...

Questions of one humourless German: Is a politician's wife a female politician? Do we all have to imitate Ms. Palin's style - teased-up hair, bank-clerk trouser suit that emphasises um saddle bags - to be considered a satorial role model as long as we don't look like a British Labour politician? Isn't it rather the faces and bodies that are being scrutinized and not the choice of clothes?

Rhiannon said...

I'm going to take a risk and go against the grain on this one.

I've sometimes been on camera, in the background, at the same time as my (male) boss, the politician.

Now, I think I usually do an ok job of dressing for my shape and and style and job. I brush my hair, wear make up, make sure I'm wearing lipstick and remember to powder my face if I'm going to be caught in the background. So, I'm groomed but not in the 'american plastic' style people have been bagging here.

And yet, I gotta say, every single time I've seen the footage I've looked frumpy and red-faced, shiny and like I haven't got a lick of lippy on. Yet, I know I did. The glare of the the television lights, the things the camera does, it all combines to make me wish that, for those few seconds caught on camera, I looked more like the 'american plastic' look. The fact is, 'normal' grooming just doesn't show up on TV cameras. So, if I were ever going to have to be on camera more than in the background, I'd be dragging out the hairspray and the slap, too. With abandon.

Duchesse said...

A UK 16 is a US 14. Television requires not only professional grooming, but tailoring. HDTV makes it even worse.