What women politicians tell us with their fashion choices

  • Seema Goswami
  • Updated: Sep 03, 2016 20:11 IST
(From left to right) Mayawati conveys that expensive tastes are no longer a preserve of the upper castes; Power has not infiltrated Mamata Banerjee’s wardrobe; Priyanka Gandhi believes in changing into costume before charging into battle; Hillary Clinton is confident enough to find her style. (Getty Images)

Fashion is often dismissed as frivolous. Not the kind of thing that a ‘serious’ woman should concern herself with. Not for her the needless obsessing with hemlines and necklines; not for her a seasonal update of her wardrobe; not for her a closet full of high-heeled shoes.

No, the ‘serious’ woman is not supposed to pay much attention to her clothes. She should ideally have a utilitarian ‘uniform’, the kind she can step into every morning with the minimum of fuss and then go out and conquer the world.

But what of the women who have, in effect, conquered their world? How much attention do they pay to clothes? And what do their fashion choices tell us about them?

This is an interesting question to ask at this time when the world is teeming with women leaders, all of them with a distinctive style of their own. A style that has been honed over the years to project an image. This image may portray anything from power to humility, femininity to feminism, style to practicality. But every image sends forth a strong message about the women behind it.

Let’s take a quick trip around this picture gallery to see what it tells us about those featured?

Hillary Clinton

It makes sense to start with the woman who will soon (fingers crossed!) be the leader of the free world. At the Democratic convention, where Hillary accepted the party’s nomination to run for President of the United States, she appeared in a dazzlingly-bright white suit, set off by blonde hair blow-dried to within an inch of its life. This was an image calculated to send out subliminal messages of power, control, perfection. This was a woman confident enough to find her style – pant suits in a single block of color, set off with a discreet neckpiece – and stick to it. Yes, it was a uniform, but it was entirely of her own making. A nod to fashion and yet a complete repudiation of it. Very Hillary, in other words.

Theresa May

Reams of newsprint have been dedicated to May’s love of shoes, which takes in every style from thigh-high PVC boots to animal print kitten heels. And now that she is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, her shoes attract more attention than ever before, signalling – as the media never tire of pointing out – the fun and frivolous side of this otherwise ‘serious’ person. But it is her tightly-structured and perfectly-tailored jackets that tell us about the essential woman: always poised, always in control, the grown up in any room. And just when you think you have figured her out, May throws you off balance yet again: with a statement necklace that hints at hidden depths behind that icy exterior.

Angela Merkel

Frau Merkel doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. And nothing says that more clearly and loudly than her wardrobe choices – or more accurately, the lack of them. She is always dressed in an ill-fitting suit, which makes no concessions to the German Chancellor’s figure. The message is clear: this woman has more important things to think about than the fit of her clothes. And that is, in itself, a style statement of sorts.

Sonia Gandhi

From the time she entered politics, Sonia has based her look on that of her famous mother-in-law. It probably helps that she inherited Indira Gandhi’s amazing collection of saris, a veritable treasure trove of handlooms accessed from all parts of India. And Sonia wears them well, always well-starched and pinned into place, loose enough around the pleats so that she can take the same long strides that were an Indira trademark, head covered by her pallu when she heads into rural parts. She is the Gandhi bahu, the repository of the family legacy, and there is never a moment when she doesn’t look the part.


In her person, she embodies the dream of Dalit empowerment. So, it is no accident that Mayawati is the only female Indian politician who is seen in public carrying a designer handbag; or that she sports diamonds in her ears that look straight out of J Jayalalithaa’s collection. Or even, that she wears smart salwar kameez ensembles of the kind that upper middle class urban women live in. Her image conveys a strong message to her followers: expensive tastes are no longer a preserve of the upper castes. Dalits have as much right to them as anyone else.

Mamata Banerjee

Her crumpled cotton saris and flip-flops have become her signature style ever since she descended on the streets of Calcutta to fight the Communists. And now that she is chief minister of the state, it serves to signal that Mamatadi is the same as ever: power has not gone to her head, or indeed infiltrated her wardrobe. She remains the same simple woman who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and devotes her life to her ‘peepul’. A woman like that has no time for an ironing board, even if someone else is doing the ironing.

Priyanka Gandhi

She is the chameleon of Indian politics. And just as she keeps the country guessing about her political intentions, she also tends to mix it up as far as her sartorial choices are concerned. In the city, she dresses like any other 40-something mother of two (albeit one with a better figure than most) in jeans and T-shirts. When she heads for the family constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli, she drapes herself in a handloom sari, just like her mother and grandmother before her. In that, she is like Superman or Batman, changing into costume before charging into battle. I guess the Uttar Pradesh elections will show if she really is Wonder Woman!

From HT Brunch, August 14, 2016

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