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The Power of Fashion: Decoding World Leaders’ Sartorial Choices

Chanel’s Spring 2015 runway show staged a feminist protest.

Since Ancient Egypt, leaders’ sartorial choices have been on the front lines of communication. In today’s media-savvy era, the ripple effect is global. Can clothes really do the talking? Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is by no means a controversial dresser. Always proper and patriotic in her attire, she nonetheless sparked a fashion flare-up at 2017’s Queen’s Speech, delivered to parliament in June. The culprit? A blue hat with a prim circle of yellow flowers. On the surface, the queen looked her usual, reserved self. But the Twittering classes suspected an act of subversion. The hat, it seemed, with its distinct shades of blue and yellow, reminded many of the European Union flag. Was she, they wondered, showing her personal support for Britain’s EU membership? Was this her jab at an unpopular government set on Brexit?

Of course, Her Majesty wasn’t saying. The Crown takes no official position on politics. The annual speech was delivered as customary, without commentary or even vocal inflection. When asked point-blank about the much talked about hat, the Palace remained silent.

Queen Elizabeth II attends the State Opening Of Parliament in the House of Lords on June 21, 2017 in London, England. Getty

In these fraught times, it can be tempting to see secret signs everywhere. Political and fashion junkies, in particular, are always on the lookout for a hidden meaning. Maybe the hat was a symbol. Or maybe the hat – was just a hat. Either way, it speaks of fashion’s power to make a political statement, intentional or not. As a visual medium, fashion is on the front line of communication. In the blink of an eye, an outfit can say what may be impossible or too impolitic to put into words.

Such is the pernicious nature of fashion (we all wear clothes) that even rejecting fashion statements is a fashion statement unto itself. As the international political activists of Femen make clear, rejecting clothes altogether can be the most powerful statement of all.

Leaders have long understood this and use fashion to convey status, values, and affiliations. Yet there is a tendency to see politics and fashion in opposition: one utterly serious and polarized, the other, frivolous and neutral. “How our leaders dress is significant,” says David Von Drehle, a journalist at the Washington Post, a paper perhaps best known for its political coverage. “They’re constantly sending messages through their clothes. Whenever I would mention a political figure’s clothes, I would get criticized for being trivial, and yet I could tell the amount of time and attention they put into it.”

One of Egypt’s earliest female pharaohs, Hatshepsut (she became co-ruler of Egypt 3,500 years ago) went bare-chested and donned men’s kilts, a headdress, and false beards. While later queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra dressed as Egyptian noblewomen, according to Robb Young, author of Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, Hatshepsut was a pioneering female politician who punctuated her power with a masculine appearance.

The lavish dress of Queen Elizabeth I influenced even her male courtiers. Getty

Fast-forward to the 1500s, to Elizabeth I of England’s embroidered clothing with exaggerated silhouettes. Her broad-shouldered coats and rigid bodices showed a ruler ready for battle. European Renaissance royals were expected to appear spectacular at all times, to display both their status and the fortune of their realms. Her rule was marked by a time when a lavish display of luxury was considered an obligation. The art of dressing became increasingly complicated with the advent of electoral politics, and further still with social media. Today’s leaders (and by extension, their spouses) have to navigate the competing demands of power and populism. As hired professionals, they must earn their standing. Clothing styles, colors, origins, and especially prices all come under scrutiny in the complex messaging of shifting social and economic circumstances.

English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber memorialized Argentina’s First Lady Eva Perón with the song lyrics, “I came from the people, they need to adore me / So Christian Dior me from my head to my toes.” Perón’s penchant for luxury, rather than alienating working class voters, reflected their aspirations and appealed to their pride. Jacqueline Kennedy, however, moved away from the European couture of her debutante days in favor of American designer Oleg Cassini when she stepped into the role of US First Lady. It was more in keeping with President John Kennedy’s image of injecting old-school politics with young, meritocratic vigor.

Meanwhile, in New York, Aïcha Laghzaoui Benhima, wife of Morocco’s ambassador to the UN, was wearing kaftans to society events to kindle cross-cultural curiosity among the likes of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and American socialite Nan Kempner.

Michelle Obama championed young designers during her husband’s tenure as president. Getty

In 2008, Michelle Obama’s highlow mix of Narciso Rodriguez dress and J. Crew cardigan carried the themes of diversity and accessibility from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign through to his electoral victory speech. Her visible support for young, often immigrant designers like Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu continued throughout the Obama presidency. Her choice of silhouettes that showed off her famously toned arms spoke of a woman unafraid to take time for herself and display the results.

“The sleeveless sheath dress is in many ways something that the fashion industry had been pushing and celebrating as the new power uniform as opposed to a business suit,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan. “The fact Michelle Obama embraced it is very modern, very contemporary. She’s the first First Lady probably Her choice of silhouettes that showed since Nancy Reagan who has actually publicly said that she likes clothes.”

Even more than political wives, female politicians have used such scrutiny to their advantage. Indira Gandhi, India’s only female prime minister, broadcast sobriety and national pride with her saris made of khadi, a fabric that had become a symbol of India’s independence from Britain. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto traded the jeans and T-shirts of her westernized, liberal upbringing for the more traditional shalwar kameez and light headscarf to appeal to the sensibilities of more conservative Pakistanis. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, known simply as “The Lady,” addresses crowds wearing colorful Burmese blouses, a sarong, and flowers in her hair – a stark contrast to the uniforms of the former ruling generals who kept her under house arrest for 15 years.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi wears bright sarongs and flowers in stark contrast to her country’s former military rulers. Getty

Speaking fashion to power doesn’t always work, though. Politics being politics, a fashionable appeal to popularity can still backfire. Assassins’ bullets brought down both Gandhi and Bhutto. And now emancipated and elected to office, Aung San Suu Kyi’s elegant figure has not protected her from criticism for failing to protect the Rohingya Muslim minority, nor from a reputation for being stubborn, secretive, and authoritarian.

But maybe that is what it takes for a woman to survive in a man’s world of politics. Often it means deferring to masculine codes. “We have a really clear idea of what the most powerful guy in the room looks like,” says Givhan, describing the universally familiar dark suit, French-cuff shirt, power tie, and wingtips. “But there’s no complementary uniform for a woman. They don’t have something they can put on that immediately and clearly says ‘power’ and nothing else.”

When prime minister Margaret Thatcher broke into the boys’ club of British politics, she exchanged the chaste dresses and girlish curls of a provincial grocer’s daughter for power suits, power hair, and even a lower power voice. With pearls, pumps, and boxy purses, it was a feminized masculine no doubt, but masculine all the same. Hatshepsut would have approved. Thatcher set a template for her successors, like American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that persists today.

Hillary Clinton evoked the white dress of suffragettes during her presidential campaign.

Feminism is, of course, a recurring theme in political fashion statements. Clinton paid homage to both suffragettes and her own generation of mid-century feminists when she accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the US presidency wearing a white pantsuit. Leagues of women turned out on election day in white, or pantsuits, or both to vote for the candidate they hoped would become America’s first female president.

But in politics as in fashion, leadership can either come down from famous figures in the “establishment,” or rise up from avant gardists and activists in the streets. And the translation of fashion into popular movements also shows how fashion can subvert power hierarchies.

The Donald Trump campaign’s red trucker cap, emblazoned with the words “Make America Great Again,” became a symbol of the working class, nationalist rejection of the intellectual globalism proposed by Clinton. Then, the day after Trump’s inauguration, images of the Women’s Marches across the US showed human rivers speckled with knit and pink caps – the new symbol of feminine resistance against alphamale dominance.

Those are overt political symbols, but even subtle fashion choices can send a powerful message. Google Shemiran and witness the stylish young women of Tehran’s affluent suburbs, who assert their femininity dressed like little Jackie Os in Hermès scarves, Burberry trench coats, and Gucci sunglasses.

But if political expression often draws on fashion symbolism, fashion has only occasionally, and often very awkwardly, returned the favor. Sometimes, it’s true, designers are political catalysts. “Fashion is not an art,” says Pierre Bergé, who ran Yves Saint Laurent alongside the legendary designer for 40 years. “But fashion needs an artist to exist.” As artists, fashion designers respond to and comment on the social dynamics around them. As marketers, they can transform activist movements from transgression to trend.

Yves Saint Laurent’s revolutionary tuxedo suit for women.

Coinciding with the first women’s rights movement at the end of the Victorian era, Coco Chanel’s designs rejected the rigid corset. She drew on a relaxed aesthetic of loose-fitting clothes favored by artists and bohemians, and interpreted it as haute couture for the wives of powerful men. Derided at first for looking like undergarments, Chanel’s creations blended political with physical liberation to create a new fashion vocabulary.

In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent extended this freedom even further. His Le Smoking tuxedo gave women the sartorial tools to assert their burgeoning power. “He played on different archetypes, including the pinstripe gangster suit, safari jacket, and utilitarian jumpsuit,” according to New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Drawing on menswear and other influences, he crafted “a new, chic, and modern way of dressing that became synonymous with the glamorous lifestyle of the decade.”

Chanel and Saint Laurent saw no contradiction in dressing society ladies and making radical statements. On the contrary, they elevated a dynamic coming from street protests to the level of high fashion, making it not only acceptable, but desirable for others to follow.

It was and remains a risky move. Many of today’s fashion brands are so big that they can hardly afford to alienate potential customers based on political leanings. Such complicated calculus is why fashion brands have historically
stayed out of politics. But governance today is increasingly about values rather than administrations. Such is the pernicious nature of the subject that even rejecting political statements is a political statement unto itself. “I think we’re now at the point where we can ask if anyone has the luxury of being neutral – as individuals, brands, or companies,” says Anna Akbari, author and former professor at Parsons School of Design. “Especially if we have a platform, is it our responsibility to stand for something?”

Model Munira Ahmed in an image by artist Shepard Fairey.

Politics were on prominent display at New York Fashion Week 2017, following Donald Trump’s election in November. Tracy Reese presented her collection alongside readings of feminist poetry and pushed guests and the CFDA to support Planned Parenthood. Mara Hoffman invited the four organizers of the Women’s March and hijab-wearing singer Yuna to model in her show. Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan cast only foreign-born or immigrant-descendant models in looks that all featured a hijab. The headscarf has been a surprising symbol of Trump-era protests, in unlikely association with women’s empowerment and rising political dissidence in America. It is worn by Palestinian-American Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, and fashioned as an American flag on model Munira Ahmed in an image interpreted by artist Shepard Fairey in the style of his iconic “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama.

But what happens when all of fashion becomes politicized? Do we, the people, become walking billboards? Or does every cause get reduced to a seasonal trend? Via popularizing, fashion also has the power to trivialize. Pantsuits don’t hold the same gravitas they used to. Neither do leather biker jackets. Those utilitarian garments once favored by criminal motorcycle gangs and later adopted by stars like James Dean as symbols of social rebellion, are now one of Inès de la Fressange’s seven wardrobe basics in her book Parisian Chic.

“They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but really, often, you can – at least somewhat,” says Akbari. “Certainly, some do and will choose to express their political allegiances sartorially, but I don’t think a blatant advertisement of your beliefs and opinions will become the norm.” Givhan agrees. “Rather than express the depth of their politics in the design of their clothes, people will more likely do so by considering how and where they’re produced, how they’re advertised, where they’re sold, and what organizations a brand chooses to support with its profits.” The messages mean different things to different people, Givhan explains. “Maria Grazia Chiuri has clearly communicated the sociopolitical stance of Dior under her direction. But she doesn’t own the company. So if a person buys Dior, are they supporting Chiuri’s proposition, or its chairman Bernard Arnault’s? Or perhaps, they simply want a blue dress.

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