Thatcher’s wardrobe

Margaret Thatcher trying on hats in her home in 1971. Photo: Selwyn Tait/Sygma, via Corbis

I’ve previously written about how how a speaker looks is an element of their persuasiveness and this week I thought I’d apply this to Margaret Thatcher (I’ve also written about how she lowered the pitch of her voice to appear more credible).

This comes in the week that a US survey on media coverage of women candidates found that when the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance she pays a price in the polls. This finding held true whether the coverage of a woman candidate’s appearance was framed positively, negatively or in neutral terms.

As we have seen in the coverage of Margaret Thatcher this week, a lot of attention was give to how she appeared. The most authoritative studies of her are by Dr Daniel Conway at Loughborough University, in particular his article Margaret Thatcher, Dress and the Politics of Fashion where he states that “Thatcher moved beyond the classed and gendered constraints of her background, learned and adapted her dress to suit the political occasion and sought to include dress as a legitimate political concern.”

Although Thatcher said quite humbly in 1985, “it often perhaps concentrates on what you are going to say if you have got well-tailored things on because people no longer look at your clothes” in fact, as Conway claims “Thatcher used clothing to help create a variety of personas from housewife to the Iron Lady, and to build relationships overseas and send political messages.” She “was initially resistant about focusing on dress in her public life, but over time learned to adapt and master dress to suit certain political ends and help craft a dominant and secure political status.”

Her attention to dress saw her enlist the help of Aquascutum director Margaret King as personal fashion advisor.  Cynthia Crawford, Personal assistant from 1978 claims to have told her  “If you are going to fight an election in June, why don’t we ask Aquascutum to make you up some working suits.” She agreed, so we ordered these suits. It was when the power shoulders were in and it just revolutionised her. She looked fantastic. She enjoyed all the new outfits and got away from the dresses.”


“The novelist Angela Carter, writing in 1983 (…) identified the archetypal elements of her public image: part Nanny, part Elizabeth I as Gloriana, part Countess Dracula (…) As for her stylised face, continued Carter, it was ‘balefully iconic… The blonde, immaculate hair; the steel-blue eyes glittering like bayonets, and always with a glazed expression as if fixed on the vision of some high Tory apotheosis, such as the crucifixion of Arthur Scargill.'” (Justine Picardie)


Sartorial messaging

“As Margaret Thatcher consolidated her position as Leader of the Opposition, she styled herself as a housewife and was pictured wearing aprons, washing up gloves and performing the roles of a housewife: brewing tea, shopping, cooking and washing up. This performance also reflected and emphasised a key Conservative macro-economic policy: that of responsible management of the nation’s “household budget” and the negative impact of inflation on the amount of goods each family could buy (Blakeway, 1993)” (Conway):

Margaret Thatcher pictured February 1975 in the kitchen of her Chelsea home
Margaret Thatcher pictured February 1975 in the kitchen of her Chelsea home

“Thatcher’s vivid self-dramatisation as the ‘Iron Lady’ in 1976 used her dress to invoke the most abiding metaphor of her as a leader: ‘I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the “Iron Lady” of the Western world’” (It is interesting to note that the US survey I mentioned found that acknowledging and responding to the sexist appearance coverage helps the woman regain some of the ground she lost.):

“[Thatcher] repeatedly styled herself to suit the political occasion, sending diplomatic and political signals by her dress (most obviously on the frequent occasions when she was resplendent in the Conservative Party’s colour of blue)”:


Hats, bows, furs

As well as her famous handbag and pearls, Thatcher had a number of accessories which which to create her political image including hats, bows and furs.

Thatcher recalled in 1985 “when I was Secretary of State for Education, I wore a rather smart hat. It suited. It looked, I suppose, a bit like a radar bowl with great big stripes on. It was a very smart hat. The fact was it would have done for an actress, but it was not quite right for a politician. I learned that lesson ever since. If you are going to wear a smart hat, wear a very plain … and for about six months after, if ever they caricatured me, it was in this blessed hat, this radar bowl. I have never worn one like it since. Now much plainer.” (Margaret Thatcher, 1985)

And according to Dr Conway “To appeal to the widest audience, she stopped wearing hats (the badge of the middle classes) for domestic politics and garnered a housewife image to appear more ordinary and less of a threat to the opposite sex.”

Minister for Education Margaret Thatcher seen her making a speech about slum schools at the 1970 Conservative party conference in Blackpool. 7th October 1970

Although in 1985 Thatcher said “I often wear bows; they are rather softening, they are rather pretty” according to Loughborough politics lecturer Dr Daniel Conway “Thatcher adapted and refined her dress to embody her increasing power and dominance, ditching the pussycat bows favoured in her early career for carefully chosen outfits tailored to the political occasion and later the televising of Parliament.”

Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images
Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

According to Suzy Menkes “She credited [being elected to the International Best Dressed List in 1988] to the Aquascutum wardrobe, built around a camel coat with a sable collar, for her trip to see Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987, when she trumped the overblown wardrobe of his wife, Raisa.”  And according to Dr Conway “Her preference for wearing green in Poland and, later, fur hats in Russia made her a ‘superstar’ in wider Europe, and she frequently included the colour of the national flag of the country she was visiting in her outfits.”

Margaret Thatcher visiting Moscow in 1987
Margaret Thatcher visiting Moscow in 1987

Dressing in opposition

The political messaging of Thatcher’s dress was used in turn by her opponents. Justine Picardie writes that “at the height of her rule, British fashion designers tended to define themselves by their opposition to Thatcherism – hence Katharine Hamnett’s famous appearance at a Downing Street party in 1984, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the anti-nuclear message 58 per cent don’t want pershing.”

The Designer of the Year award was created in 1984 – the first recipient of it was Katharine Hamnett, who is best known for her famous protest T-shirts. Here, Hamnett wore a "58% Don't Want Pershing" T-shirt (in reference to America's controversial Pershing II guided missile being deployed in West Germany), to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984 at a 10 Downing Street reception for Fashion Week Designers.
Here, Hamnett wore a “58% Don’t Want Pershing” T-shirt (in reference to America’s controversial Pershing II guided missile being deployed in West Germany), to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984 at a 10 Downing Street reception for Fashion Week Designers. (Source: Vogue)

And “Vivienne Westwood’s parody of the Prime Minister on the front cover of Tatler in April 1989 was equally subversive: photographed by Michael Roberts, with the provocative coverline ‘this woman was once a punk’, Westwood wore Thatcher’s favourite label, Aquascutum, while also despising her. ‘I met her once and that satisfied my curiosity. She was more horrible than I could possibly have imagined.'”

Addendum (with thanks to @sftpwr)

I think it’s important to interrogate the image strategies of politicians but somehow I haven’t thought enough about how the media’s interrogation of women’s appearances becomes a political act in itself, a form of lobbying (although I do refer above to research showing that even positive references to women’s appearance make voters think less of them).

I’m not sure what the solution is – never mentioning image in political discourse seems counter productive.

Maybe more reference to men’s image like this? In my posts I have referred to the image-making of men but this is in the minority, partly because of what research is available online. But this apparent skewed focus of research into politician’s image itself could indicate a whole load of assumptions in academia (which I would hope is slightly more objective than the media). Maybe the emphasis on studying women politicians is benign as people look for obstacles to their participation.

I’d be interested to know what you think.


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