When you hear the words ‘iconic image’ what is the first picture that flashes before your mind’s eye? Is it the streak of white in a shock of curly black hair that Indira Gandhi made famous? Is it the pussycat bow and structured handbag that was such an integral part of Margaret Thatcher’s persona?
Is it the little black dress accessorised with layers of pearls that Coco Chanel turned into a style statement that survives to this day? It is not a coincidence that all of the examples cited are of women. You could say that this is because we pay more attention to how women dress and present themselves, whereas the style choices of men are not subject to the same scrutiny. And you could well be right.
But, if you ask me, I think this goes much further. Women who are in public life are much more aware of the image they present to the world (perhaps because they know they are being judged by it) than their male counterparts. They are more inclined and better equipped to make a statement with the way they look. And they are fully conscious of the power that such iconography carries.
The bag story: Margaret Thatcher’s famous handbag even spawned a new term: ‘handbagging’, for the way Thatcher swept aside all opposition
Indira Gandhi’s imperious wave of white hair; those impeccably-draped saris; the rudraksh mala: it was the perfect image for a strong leader of a country that was universally perceived as being weak in that era. But such was the force of her personality when she looked down her aristocratic nose, that even such world leaders as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were left feeling like errant schoolboys.
On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher – perceived as a bit of a martinet by most people – had to soften her look to appear more sympathetic. So in came the pussycat bow, while the helmet-like hair was changed to a subtle, layered style. Her string of pearls served both as a nod to her femininity and a subtle counterpoint to the power suits she wore like a uniform. And then there was the famous handbag, which seemed surgically attached to her hand, and even spawned a new term: ‘handbagging’, for the way Thatcher swept aside all opposition.
Yes, women know the power of appearances when they are striving to make a political point. Think of Benazir Bhutto, the trouser-wearing, trendy daughter of Z A Bhutto, in her younger, more Westernised avatar. When it came to reclaiming her political legacy though, she took care to drape herself in the colours of the Pakistani flag. Her green salwar-kameez paired with a white dupatta draped over her head conveyed a message about her dedication to the twin values of patriotism and peace; a message that was all the more powerful for being non-verbal.
It’s not an accident that some women evoke a certain image in our minds. Think Queen Elizabeth II and an image of a slightly matronly figure in twin-sets in block colours, accessorised with matching hats and gloves, will pop into your mind. Think Coco Chanel and you will immediately picture a little black dress topped off with endless layers of pearls. Think Michelle Obama, and a pair of uber-toned biceps will pop up in your mind’s eye (no wonder her husband joked about her right to ‘bare arms’).
Closer home, too, it is the ladies who have a stronger public image than the men. Sonia Gandhi in her perfectly-draped handlooms; Sushma Swaraj with her trademark mangalsutra and sindoor; Mayawati in her pink salwar-kameezes; Mamata Banerjee in her ‘woman of the peepuls’ crumpled cotton saris; and Meira Kumar whose sartorial style is as unruffled as her demeanour.
Among the men, though, it is only Narendra Modi with his trademark half-sleeve kurtas, who comes close to having an ‘iconic’ image. And thereby hangs a tale…
From HT Brunch, May 12
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