English political satirist Henry Fielding once said, “Fashion is the science of appearance.” I thought of this quote while watching Meryl Streep’s Oscar winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”. As Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher made a statement about politics and gender with her handbag.
That sturdy, conservative handbag became a symbol of female political power. This handbag was even turned into a verb: when Baroness Thatcher gave her political opponents a sound thrashing, some journalists began to refer to it as “handbagging”.
I started to think about other political fashion statements that packed a similar punch. The interesting thing about personal style is that even if you don’t give any thought to what you wear, your clothes still speak for you. Not making a conscious sartorial statement still makes a statement. Sometimes, fashion speaks louder than words. This is particularly true in politics. With clothes, the personal is most definitely political. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these 12 powerful political fashion statements.
1. Che Guevara’s beret. This simple beret conveyed dignity, strength and a romanticized image of the Marxist Revolution. Tilted just so, it also showed off his handsome face…which is probably why in the mid-2000s, Che Guevara t-shirts became commodified and popularized by models, rock stars and hipsters in a way that would probably make Che shudder.
2. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s trademark black umbrella, which had a unique role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
On Nov. 22, 1963 the president’s motorcade approached a man holding a black umbrella, who lifted it and spun it above his head. Soon after, Kennedy was assassinated. Conspiracy theorists referred to this unknown person as, “The Umbrella Man”, speculating that the umbrella contained a poison dart or was used to signal the snipers. But in 1978, Louie Steven Witt testified that he was the Umbrella Man. He explained he was simply protesting Joseph P. Kennedy, who had supported Chamberlain’s Nazi appeasement policy. It sounded far-fetched and few people believed him. But it goes to show just how serious fashion can be…and how crazed conspiracy theorists can get.
3. Muammar Gaddafi’s Bea Arthur-style wardrobe. While Gaddafi’s strange fashion choices left no doubt that he was a nutty dictator, it is also important to note that the flowing tunics and scarves were very reminiscent of Bea Arthur on “The Golden Girls”. I could almost hear Estelle Getty saying, “Picture it, Tripoli, 1982…”
4.The Nehru jacket. Made famous by the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, this jacket was designed to look different from Western jackets yet still formal enough for government functions. Co-opted by the Beatles during their mod-era (since it had stylish Eastern flair) and James Bond villains (for reasons unknown.)
5. Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe. In 1960, Khrushchev repeatedly banged his shoe on a table at the UN General Assembly. One explanation for the incident was that his Soviet-made shoes were too tight, and he’d slipped them off under the table. Thus, they were within easy reach when he became enraged after the Philippine delegate accused the Soviet Union of depriving Eastern Europe of “civil and political rights.” The Khrushchev Shoe Banging Incident became a potent symbol of the Cold War…and a lesson to us all: never don new shoes for an important function without wearing them in first.
6. Barbara Bush’s pearls. The perfect accessory for America’s patrician grandmother, a woman capable of visiting Hurricane Katrina victims at the Houston Astrodome (most of whom had been separated from their families and friends) and proclaiming, “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” These patrician pearls are in stark contrast to her son…
7. George W. Bush’s Presidential Boots. These boots are a sartorial manifestation of his special brand of Cowboy Diplomacy. Case in point: in 2007, while I was waiting for a friend to get off work from Fox News Channel, I snapped this photo of the News Corp. “Toys for Tots” box. You see that? Nestled amongst the games and stuffed animals…it’s a George W. Bush doll complete with “Presidential Boots”. Yes, it appears that despite all of Fox News’ heated rhetoric, someone in that building was waging their own War On Christmas.
8. Jimmy Carter’s Tragic Oatmeal Colored Cardigan. In 1977, President Carter made an earnest address to the American public about conserving energy. He suggested we turn down our thermostats, and probably thought this earnest cardigan was a good symbol. Instead, he looked so worn out, so ineffective so…beige that much like the White House thermostats, his presidency was all downhill from there. Beige is just not a power color, a concept not lost on the next First Lady of the United States…
9. Nancy Reagan’s “Reagan Red”. She referred to the color red as “a picker upper” and wore it often. So many Republican politicos followed suit that whenever I see a Democrat wearing a bright red suit I wonder if she didn’t get the memo.
10.Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. She is mocked for them, but her reasoning is simple: while working alongside men, she wants to level the sartorial playing field. She is after all, a First Wave feminist who came of age when the goal was to be seen as “just as effective as men.” Using your feminine wiles as a tool was not acceptable. This is in stark contrast to Sarah Palin, who uses her attractiveness to her advantage by wearing short, tight skirts…but cried foul when Newsweek magazine put a revealing photo of her on their cover. She deemed it “sexist”.
11. Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses. Her beautifully toned arms convey a healthy, athletic type of feminine strength befitting a First Lady who has made improving the nation’s physical fitness a focal point.
12. Jacqueline Kennedy’s blood stained Chanel suit. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Mrs. Kennedy was given a fresh suit aboard Air Force One to put on before facing the public and press. She refused to change out of the blood stained suit and said, “Let them see what they’ve done.”
Now that is a truly powerful Fashion Statement.
SIDE NOTE: As I was finishing up the research for this piece, I discovered that Time Magazine had published an article on this topic on January 9th. (Hence, I sighed, said “shit” and posted this on my blog rather than submitting it somewhere for publication.) It took Time Magazine SEVEN staffers to write their article. Mine was done by one (now unpaid) freelancer. Which one do you like better? If you enjoyed this post, please help a lowly freelancer out by linking to it! And if you didn’t like it–eh, who needs ya?