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Campaigns and Couture: The political power of fashion

Left to right: Julia Gillard, Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Left to right: Julia Gillard, Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

From Parliament to Prada or Capitol Hill to Couture, it seems like fashion couldn’t seem further away from politics. But we mustn’t forget how easily fashion can change public perception of an individual, something that is utterly crucial in the political landscape. Some would argue that the image a leader projects is more influential than their policies, and a leader’s image can be shaped, in large part, by what they wear. Clothes can tell us about a person’s sense of humour, chutzpah, and their values. When wearing a bathrobe and last night’s make-up we mightn’t seem ready to fire off comprehensive policy ideas. Since clothing can speak so clearly of competency and intelligence – both essential in positive public reception – politicians, whether they’re aware of it or not, have to enter the world of fashion.

Of course, we have always been paid attention to fashion in politics, but only via the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama. First ladies have continuously drawn attention for their style whilst their husbands were left out of the conversation. The first lady often functions as an unofficial ambassador or representative for the head of state, so whatever attention she draws – be it positive or negative – will be extended to her husband. American first lady, Michelle Obama, is a regular in women’s magazines and former first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, has serious fashion kudos – she was a model before stepping into the world of politics. Style is important for a first lady if she’s seeking to be influential and memorable: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ style truly cemented her place in history. In certain cases, women are able to identify with a first lady much better than their spouse – so as far as pollies go, a popular wife is a huge advantage. Tony Abbott doesn’t have one, but four women standing by his side: his three daughters often support his public appearances.

But what happens when a woman isn’t simply the first lady, but the head honcho herself? As far as style scrutineering, is she appraised like a first lady or are her stylistic choices ignored the same as a male prime ministers would be? The answer we’d like to hear is that she’d be treated in the same way as a man in her position. Julia Gillard’s prime-ministership showed us that this is disappointingly not the case: she was subject to swathes of criticism, her haircut, her weight, her clothes and her optometry choices all made headlines. Nothing was off limits, nothing. A coat Gillard wore three days into office prompted to ask “Does a technicolour screamcoat prove Julia Gillard needs fashion cash?” Similar criticism persisted throughout her Prime-Ministership, and perhaps her policy decisions were, in some cases, ignored in favour of fashion scrutineering.

Julia Gillard was in a tough position: stylistically she was expected to be the head of state and the first lady. She had to give the impression she was equal in ability and competency to her male counterparts, and a key part of this was dressing much like they did, in crisp suits. Yet the media also expected her to be stylish and chic, and perhaps a little more adventurous, like first lady Michelle Obama. But when the public expected two wholly different things, if Gillard was doing one, she wasn’t doing the other. The task was impossible.

It’s easy to begin asking yourself why Julia Gillard was subject to such harsh assessment. Why aren’t our male political figures scrutinised in the same way? Is it because we assume they are competent regardless of clothes? Maybe people don’t think they need visual clues to assure themselves of a man’s abilities, because they’re taken for granted. This suggests that a woman’s aptitude isn’t inherent and needs to be visibly established. Then again, people could simply be more interested in the diversity of women’s fashions. Is it possible that the media simply didn’t know how to treat a female PM? If so, here’s a hint: treat her like the Prime-Minister, because that is what she was.

Our new Prime-Minister elect Tony Abbott happily trotted out his daughters Bridget, Louise and Frances to celebrate his win on September 7th. The young women wore chic, white, of-the-moment dresses: they are the closest Abbott will ever get to being cool. Their backing has been priceless, and its likely Abbott will continue relying on their youthful endorsement because he’s aware of how easily marketable the young women are. Fashion has power in the game of politics, whether we like it or not.


Images: WikiCommons

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