Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Making a statement: fashion and female leadership

By Haneul Lee

Our columnist Haneul Lee considers whether it’s anti-feminist to label fashion coverage as insignificant. 

Though I am in no way a fashion expert, the media coverage of various female leaders over the past few years piqued my interest. The number of women getting involved in politics has been rising – in the UK, there has been an 11% increase of female representatives in parliament. It was a curious situation, as although there was increased reportage of women in leadership, a significant percentage of these articles focused on their outfit and fashion choices, whether it was criticism of Theresa May’s leather pants or commentary on Kamala Harris’s white pantsuit.

Admittedly, the gap between male and female representatives is lessening at a snail’s pace and only amounts to 33.9% of those in parliament, which is far from representative of the UK population. There is estimated to be a greater number of women getting involved, fortunately, as according to Forbes, 2021 will be the year of female leadership in both business and politics. It is only to be expected that media coverage has changed and will continue to change to accommodate the rising number of female leaders. What I feared was that this change would mean a frustrating increase in columns about these representatives’ fashion choices instead.

Very few – if any – articles are written on the outfit choices of male politicians (unless, of course, we’re talking about Bernie Sanders’ mittens). To me, focusing on something as trivial as their outfit choice was demeaning to the messages they were trying to convey and discrediting what these leaders were trying to achieve. Indeed, after Kamala Harris’s victory speech, fashion columnists who reported on her outfit were asked to focus on the content of her words rather than the colour choice of her outfit, as it was trivialising her role as the first female vice-president.

I pitched this article planning to write on why fashion was harmful to the media coverage of female leaders. You can imagine my surprise, then, when after multiple brainstorming sessions and inner conflicts, I came to the conclusion that fashion coverage on female leadership was not as harmful as I had initially thought.

It is an irrefutable fact that the majority of journalists writing these articles are women. Whether or not it is by choice or pitched to them by their editors, who am I to tell these columnists that what they’re writing about is unimportant? And who’s to say that they didn’t take anything away from these speeches or feel just as inspired and motivated as other people were? Fashion is considered art and has its own culture – it sounds quite “pick me” to label something that is typically female-oriented as insignificant and harmful to the portrayal of women in leadership.

Politics and leadership can be interpreted not just through leaders’ verbal and written policies, but also through their outfit choice of the day. In many cases, politics extends to fashion and accessories as well, specifically in regards to female politicians and leaders. There has been a long history of using fashion to fight against the patriarchy. The Suffragettes used fashion as a form of empowerment – their colour scheme in 1908 was a form of fashion branding (purple meaning loyalty, white meaning purity, green meaning hope). Women wearing bloomers and trousers in the 19th and early 20th century was considered a power move, and this was considered a threat to their femininity. 

The term power dressing picked up traction in the late 20th century. Referring to a type of fashion style women have adopted to dress in public and professional environments, power dressing initially originated from women wearing male suits but accentuating their outfits with accessories like brooches, necklaces or watches. Although women’s suits now exist, the importance of accessories is not understated. After her speech at the 2021 US presidential inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman’s scarlet headband completely sold out, with many noting that she wore it like a crown rather than a headband. Gorman provides a good example as to why these fashion-based articles on female leaders and representatives are important, as they frequently get picked up by the general public who gain inspiration from them.

The point still stands that virtually no male politicians or leaders would go through the visual scrutiny female representatives do on a daily basis (although I’m sure something completely bizarre, like Boris Johnson in his pyjamas perhaps, would have plenty of buzz). There’s a reason Kate Middleton’s accessories and outfits get sold out in about three seconds flat, with columnists articling her every (fashion) move. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Ultimately, isn’t it every writer’s goal to have the ability to inspire others and ignite change? And if fashion columns can motivate and empower women to do the same, who am I to judge?


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