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Dressing the part: women, power, fashion - and that bloody jacket!

Germaine Greer had been responding to a questioner on the ABC’s Q&A program (March 19, 2012), who asked what advice the panel would give to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard on her image problem. Gillard’s…

A germaine point… lost in the furore around comments over Julia’s jackets was a genuine insight into the relationship between power and attire. AAP/ Lukas Coch

Germaine Greer had been responding to a questioner on the ABC’s Q&A program (March 19, 2012), who asked what advice the panel would give to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard on her image problem.

Gillard’s style was dry and somewhat terse, Greer said, but there were lots of good things about her. She was an administrator, who knew how to get things done. “It’s unglamorous, it’s not star material but it’s what she’s been doing… What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets!”

The last comment was a flash of mischievous insight that seemed to take Greer herself by surprise, following the rather sober way she’d approached the question. Clearly enjoying the instantaneous response from the studio audience, she added: “They don’t fit.” If only she had stopped there, but by now the impulse to stir was irresistible. The jackets didn’t fit because they were cut too narrow in the hips. “You’ve got a big arse, Julia. Get over it.” That was the line that went viral, and Greer was widely condemned for a betrayal of feminist principles. At her next appearance on Q&A, she was called to account but was unrepentant, and provoked a kind of scandalised hilarity as she expanded freely on the matter of the Prime Minister’s body shape and the need to rejoice in the fullness of female anatomy.

Somewhere in all this, a genuine insight was being lost: that at some level, the cut of the Prime Minister’s jacket does matter, and that to get it wrong signals a lack of one of the many competencies required in the role. Greer’s fix on the jacket question is in line with her fierce concern for technique and construction across a whole range of things, from car engines to Shakespeare sonnets. As a literary scholar, Greer also has a finely tuned instinct for metaphor, and at that particular stage in the political cycle, Julia Gillard risked looking as if she was not cut out for the role of prime minister; her preference for over-sculpted jackets bearing no comfortable relationship to her body shape served to underline the impression that there was a lack of fit.

It is quite possible that a change of style for a female political leader could help to reverse a slide in approval ratings, but Germaine Greer was making a more particular point before she veered off track. She was, quite explicitly, targeting the jackets, and the exhortation was not to get better ones but to get rid of them. This, when you think about it, was a bold and radical piece of advice. A political leader with no jackets?

As a garment conceived to give form to the human silhouette, the jacket expresses a relationship between form and formality; and as a staple item of business attire, it is a mandatory part of the western male dress code for formal occasions. Women have other options, but women in prominent political roles have generally resisted exploring them. There is a feminist issue here, though not the one that was running in the blog lines about the exchanges on Q&A. The earnest principle that professional women should not have to deal with a primary focus on their appearance has become over familiar, and Greer was deliberately flouting it, but in doing so she may have touched on a more interesting question: a question about the relationship between male and female dress codes and the ways in which power roles are culturally defined.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s flowing garments connote traditional female dress.

There are examples of female political leaders from non-western cultures who have adapted traditional female dress to create a personal image free of any suggestion that they are in roles defined by masculine conventions. Benazir Bhutto and Aung San Suu Kyi show how a woman in long skirts of beautiful fabrics, with a veil over her head or flowers in her hair, can look strong, elegant and distinctive. Yet western dress conventions for political leaders of both sexes are based on masculine traditions of business attire, in which the suit works to standardise the personal silhouette, creating smooth, subdued outlines for the lower body and with all the visual accent on the collar area, to draw attention upwards to the face. There is a literal aspect to focusing on the “head” in business. Attempts to feminise the look – through diversified approaches to the cut of the jacket, the introduction of bold colour in fabric choices, and the addition of pearls and crusty brooches – only make the anomaly more conspicuous.

‘Dress for Success’

What is called “power dressing” is essentially a phenomenon of the 1980s, belonging to the culture of social conservatism, economic rationalism and corporate ambition associated with that era. Following the publication of John T Molloy’s book Dress for Success in 1975, the image of the career woman gained increasing currency, but it was Margaret Thatcher who really established the look. When she stood outside 10 Downing Street in May 1979, prepared to cross the threshold as the newly elected Prime Minister, Thatcher’s appearance was contrived to go with an artificially softened voice and sentiments to match. Against the black stone of the building and the grey of the London street, the vibrant blue of her suit, complemented by a light print blouse, still carried vestiges of a prettiness belonging to a former era. The short jacket, contoured around the waist, and mid-calf skirt flaring out in sunray pleats recalled Dior’s 1947 “new look,” and the return of a womanly silhouette after the austerities of the war years.

Margaret Thatcher’s image defined the conservatism of her politics. AAP

As she grew firmer and more assertive in the new role, her suits evolved accordingly. Lapels were accentuated with contrast fabrics, shoulders widened, skirts straightened, blouses were tied off with a flourish in outsized bows at the neck. The blues intensified, becoming more royal, and alternating with black and white or red as chromatic anchors. Her hair was swept higher and wider around the temples so that her head quite literally seemed to expand.

These tendencies coincided with general trends in the fashion world of the 1980s, a decade in which the hippie ideals of the postwar baby boom were abandoned and Generation X focused on the competition for advancement on the corporate ladder. Thatcher set out to be the mould of form but not the glass of fashion; her image served to define the conservatism she expressed in her policies and every outfit she wore was ‘on message’.

Over the ensuing decades, though, the message appears to have got lost somewhere, as leading women from both sides of politics continue to observe a dress code that is caught in a timewarp. Some obvious factors come to bear on the choices they make. Politicians who are at the mercy of constant opinion polling are understandably risk-averse in the business of creating and maintaining a public image, and women in positions of corporate leadership must command the confidence of peers and shareholders. The shifting aesthetics of the fashion world are dangerous ground for those who must project a sense of stalwartness and personal consistency, so a look that is only marginally influenced by style trends is the safest option.

For those who work an exhausting schedule involving international commitments, there is also an aspect of sheer convenience. Hillary Clinton’s adoption of the pantsuit as a personal uniform is a way of opting out of the whole business of personal styling, in order to concentrate on matters of larger importance.

Power and pearls: While fashionable, IMF head Christine Lagarde’s choices centre around the masculine convention of the suit. AAP

Angela Merkel, with a similar approach, has a range of long-line jackets in different colours, all cut to the same pattern and worn with black trousers. Such conscious stylists as Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice are more various in their choices, but operate within the same set of conventions, assembling their outfits around versions of the sculpted jacket and fitted skirt or pants, accessorised with pearls.

Power dressing paradox

So-called power dressing is a vexing paradox. It is associated with risk avoidance rather than adventure, conformity rather than trail blazing and innovation. It is a form of stylistic paralysis. In December 2012, Hillary Clinton addressed delegates at the NATO headquarters in Brussels wearing a jacket with edged lapels that might have cut on the same pattern as many of those in Thatcher’s wardrobe. It’s curious that women in powerful positions choose to present themselves in a style that is an anachronism even as they grapple with the most urgent issues of the moment in an endeavour to set directions for the future.

When it comes to offering advice on the image challenges of the Australian Prime Minister, a call for “the real Julia” has caused enough problems already. But perhaps this also points towards the heart of the matter. One of the hurdles for any woman who sets a precedent in a leadership role is the sneaking suspicion that she is not the real thing, but positions of power necessarily involve role play. There is no getting away from it, and there are weaker and stronger approaches to fashioning the role. The fact so many women in key positions are still trapped in the codes of power dressing is a reflection of the degree to which modern democracies shackle those in leadership to a set of negatives. In politics, those who live and die by opinion polling cannot afford to offend or confuse. They must never appear eccentric, or be open to accusations of inconsistency.

Hillary Clinton’s pant suits were an attempt to opt out of the gender-loaded issue of styling. AAP

To break out of the negative cycle involves projecting courage and a sense of sustained inner conviction, and being able to capture the imagination of the public with vision and inspiration. This is where there is something to be gained in revisiting the dramatis personae of female theatres of power.

“Get rid of the jackets!”

The trouble with Gillard’s clothes, Germaine Greer said, is that they don’t look as if they belong to her. How can those women who have followed Thatcher on the world stage expect to generate an effective presence if they persist in wearing clothes that belong to Margaret Thatcher, and that were designed to be on message for an intensely conservative politician of the 1980s? Presence is about being in the present, and a political leader should look as if their energies are drawn from the here and now.

Generational change is a factor that is due to come into play here. I got my first professional appointment as a lecturer in 1983, and celebrated by buying a pantsuit. At the time it was an exciting but acutely stressful transition in my life and looking back on it, I’m aware of how I was part of a wider social transition, as for the first time it became the norm for women in early adulthood to see their future in terms of career goals. We need to reflect on how recent this is, as a social and cultural transformation. The identity-shift for women is still in a phase of relative immaturity, but we need to look back as well as forward in order to find future directions.

Second-wave feminism took its impetus from an overblown critique of the status quo. Women were perceived to be essentially disempowered, and traditional forms of feminine control came under suspicion as being born of constraint, and having their basis in manipulative sexuality. As a consequence, the career woman of the 1980s who set out to be everything she could be was a figure cordoned off from deep and various traditions of female power. All those witches, queens, courtesans and divas were to be banished from our imaginative world. Banishing the jackets might help to prompt a more fundamental process of rethinking what women of power have been and may become.

This is an excerpt of an essay by Jane Goodall, which appears in the current edition of the Griffith Review 40: Women and Power, edited by Julianne Schultz.

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