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The pantsuit and the red tie: How politics and influence have been won from the wardrobe

Written by Miroslav Tomoski

Of the many-sorted rules of diplomacy that can range from the use of language to brute force, many of the most effective maneuvers in political interaction are the ones that go unnoticed. Among these, fashion is the subtle instrument that can make all the difference. Within the details lies the power to command respect from an individual, a room, and a country; turning every international summit, cabinet meeting, or personal encounter into a high stakes red-carpet showdown.

Looks matter, and few in the world of politics understood this more than the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. To her supporters she was a visionary of pragmatic government. To others she was shrewd Lady Thatcher, coming to steal their children’s milk—a model for the Machiavellian style. But on either side of the division bell one thing was perfectly clear: the Iron Lady understood that politics is a performance, and the performer’s wardrobe has the power to yield incredible influence.

Throughout her stay at 10 Downing St., Margaret Thatcher routinely rehearsed meetings with foreign leaders to ensure that her chosen attire would give off the desired effect, and was prepared to alter her look at a moment’s notice. She wore specially made suits with embroidered bibs that could simulate the effect of a new blouse when a quick change was needed. The colours represented her party, the designers represented her country, and the complete ensemble commanded respect. And it wasn’t just her own appearance she was concerned with; Thatcher even demanded that her ministers dress accordingly or risk undermining her power.

“She was convinced that her authority would be diminished if she were not impeccably turned out at all times. She was probably right,” cabinet member Nigel Lawson once remarked.

Thatcher asserted her place as leader of the country with heritage designers like Aquascutum, who tailored the aesthetic of British leadership for decades. The fashion house’s director, Margaret King, would be a close ally to Thatcher, often providing sartorial counsel to carefully craft her image through the use of power shoulders and tailored suits.

But while the Baroness mastered the gendered appearances of the 1980s, she also set a standard of her own. As many of her male colleagues would attest, the most intimidating part of her wardrobe was often her Tory-blue handbag.

Over the course of her life Thatcher’s handbag was a source of comfort to her, and fear to her enemies. When faced with particularly tricky opposition, the Prime Minister would reach into her bag for a prepared speech or statistic—a counterpoint to aid her argument.

“Whenever this happened, the cabinet secretary would pale, and the minister would raise his eyes to the ceiling,” former education secretary, Kenneth Baker, said of the signature browbeating which came to be known as ‘handbagging.’ “Many are the ministers who have cursed the contents of that wretched blue handbag.”

Though centuries of male leadership had entrenched the suit and tie as a symbol of authority, Thatcher was able to find a delicate balance between masculine strength and feminine grace. Playing on the preconceptions of male dominated rooms, she wore broad padded-shoulders to project power to her counterparts and pussy-bow blouses to disarm them.

As University of Westminster’s Daniel Conway said of her visit to Moscow in 1987, “Far from belittling her status or power by focus on her appearance, press reports emphasized Thatcher’s international status and political acumen.”

It was this mastery of balance in her performance of politics that earned Thatcher the praise of the international press, in which Suzy Menkes of The New York Times referred to her wardrobe as armor.

That armor has since been worn by powerful personalities all over the world, and perhaps most famously by Hillary Clinton.

Calling herself a “pantsuit aficionado” on Twitter, that masculine symbol of power has been borrowed and adapted artfully by designers and become a signature of the Clinton wardrobe.

Among the trove of brightly coloured sets Clinton wore on the trail in 2016, no other suit has been speculated on and talked about more than her choice for the concession speech, delivered on the morning of November 10th, 2016.

From social media to blogs and print magazines, an army of spectators wondered aloud what the colour purple might have meant. Amid varying crowds, the colour represented everything from a display of her Methodist faith, to solidarity with the suffragettes, and a blend of the two major party colors in a call for national unity. The pantsuit meant something to everyone.

As for the Clinton team, there was never a clear nod to one side or the other. Although, her coordination with her husband (a rumored budget of $200,000 across the trail) and the help of designers like Nina McLemore, suggest that Clinton’s loss on election night was the only part of the campaign that went unplanned.

Clinton’s long career in politics has helped her to understand that whether or not you dress intentionally in the spotlight, everyone will take notice. As First Lady of Arkansas, her physical appearance and demeanor is cited by some as one of the major reasons the Clintons lost the governor’s mansion after two years in 1981.

Much like Thatcher’s conservative constituents, the people of Arkansas had grown accustomed to a more traditional role for their First Lady. Clinton, on the other hand, worked her own job, kept her own name, and wore a suit better than most men in the state. But she would never allow her appearance to get in the way again and returned her family to the governors mansion just a few years later in 1983.

While women like Thatcher and Clinton have had to take calculated steps in fashion in order to be taken seriously, in many cases they have owned their looks far better than any men who opposed them. For example, Clinton’s Primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, was continuously nagged by satirical pokes for his disheveled hair and ill-fitting suits. Although women in power are often expected to adopt a more masculine appearance, the designers who ensure that they look the part are delighted to have a wider range of options.

“[Women] can be tough when they need to be tough but when there’s tension in the room they can deflate it with a sense of humour,” McLemore once told the Telegraph. “It means the clothes you wear also can send that message of 'I’m a positive person’—which is much more challenging for men in grey suits to project, short of resorting to a novelty tie.”

For someone who sports lustrous ties of his own brand, President Donald Trump didn’t seem to fare much better than Sanders. Indeed, even after the election the press pool still seems to delight in pointing to the ridiculous length of Trump’s fire engine red ties, suggesting they are either an awkward fashion statement or crude attempt at innuendo.

“[T]he tip of a man's tie should fall right in the middle of his waistband or his belt—no longer,” notes GQ. “Trump's looks like it falls four inches below that.”

Unfortunately Trump’s dangling blunder caused the tail of his tie to fall just short of the loop that’s meant to keep it in place, causing reporters to snicker as a gust of wind once revealed that he uses scotch tape to hold it all together.

But does any of it really matter? When it comes to politics, there are bigger issues at hand. Besides, both Sanders and Trump were vying for the vote of the everyman. An individual who might appreciate disheveled hair and some rolled-up sleeves, as a gesture that their candidate is willing to get down to work.

After all, both Clinton and Thatcher have been criticized for being too polished, too extravagant. But politics is a performance and the key, as the Baroness often insisted and her friend Ronald Reagan later discovered, is in the details.

Marked by historians and politicians alike as the beginning of the end for the Cold War, the disarmament summits of the 1980s began with a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, that was defined by two simple garments.

In his book Ronald Reagan in Private, Jim Kuhn, then special assistant to the President, recalls a cold November morning in 1985, at the Chateau Fleur d'Eau. Standing in the atrium with all of the President’s top advisers, Kuhn was anxiously awaiting the first meeting between Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was to be the beginning of nuclear negotiations that Reagan had been after for years.

Enduring a succession of ailing leaders in the Soviet Union, it would be six years and three General Secretaries before Reagan would get his meeting. When asked at a press conference why the summit hadn’t happened sooner, Reagan quipped, “They keep dying on me.”

But the new General Secretary was 20 years younger than Reagan. An internationally respected leader with fresh ideas and the potential to make The Gipper look like a relic of the past.

With Gorbachev's motorcade just minutes away, Reagan turned to the valet and asked for his coat and scarf.

“Hearing the president's request, I suddenly got a sick feeling in my stomach.” Kuhn remembers. “The president, who rarely got angry, was getting irritated.”

“What is it now?” he said. “It's not the coat again, is it?”

“Yes, sir. But let me ask you one final question,” Kuhn said after badgering the president multiple times to rid himself of the coat and scarf. The already-tense atmosphere of the room had only been made worse by a seemingly paranoid advisor who insisted on a last-minute costume change. What if Gorbachev emerged from his limousine with no coat? What if he appeared to withstand the cold, while 74-year-old Reagan looked as though he couldn’t manage a simple meeting on the steps without being wrapped in a heap of wool? Reagan had heard enough.

“There, is that what you want?” The president finally said, throwing the excess garments to Kuhn.

“Yes, sir,” Kuhn replied. “Now, you're ready to go.”

As the President stepped out to greet his Soviet counterpart, he seemed to leap past the few steps to the motorcade where Gorbachev emerged in a thick winter coat and hat. Reagan led the younger Gorbachev up the stairs and held him by the arm as if to help a bundled elderly man—the kind of ailing man his predecessors had been. Kuhn breathed a sigh of relief, and the press reported it just as he’d imagined.

“I felt that we lost the game during the first movement,” said Soviet aide Sergei Tarasenko. “We had come prepared with a chess game that started with the wrong move. It produced a contrast which was not favourable to our side, unfortunately.”

That first encounter in years between the superpowers was largely recorded as a Soviet blunder by the western press. However as Kuhn later observed, the incident had a much deeper impact than a simple gaffe or wardrobe malfunction. It haunted Gorbachev for the remainder of the three day summit and set the tone for their next meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. Having learned his lesson from the former-actor and his wardrobe, Gorbachev took the opportunity to ask Reagan for some valuable fashion advice, “The next time we meet, will it be coats on or coats off?”

Though subtle in its execution, power projected through appearance makes all the difference. It is this visual sleight of hand that took Justin Trudeau from frat boy to dashing politician and helped to propel him from the backbench to the Prime Minister’s Office; the legacy of Thatcher that promotes American designers to dress Melania Trump on Inauguration Day. While the powerful work to define our world, the personas that allow them to do so are carefully stitched from behind the scenes.