April 12, 2013 6:26 pm

An image cast in iron

Margaret Thatcher understood the power of the consistent persona, of dress as shorthand

When it was announced earlier this week that Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister and the first female leader of a major western power, had died, the tweets and slideshows came fast and fulsome. Of course they did; she was a historic figure. And yet, for all the times that someone said, “She changed the world,” and referred to the Falklands war, and her war on unions, and the end of the cold war, there were as many others who referred to her clothes.

“Very sad to hear of death of Baroness Thatcher. Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today’s politics,” tweeted Boris Johnson, mayor of London. Katherine Haddon, in an obituary for AFP, wrote: “Behind the bouffant hair, trademark handbag and schoolma’am voice was an uncompromising Conservative who regularly cut her male colleagues and opponents down to size with a sharp tongue and even sharper political brain.” Meanwhile, the slideshows went up almost immediately: “Margaret Thatcher’s style remembered” (HuffPost); British Vogue and Grazia UK did them too.

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Vanessa Friedman

So let’s ask the natural question: would this have happened for a male prime minister? Doubtful. Which leads to the corollary: is it a bad thing? Is it an example of sexism, of how we treat female politicians differently from male ones, judging them on/remembering them for their clothing and appearance? Does it detract from her achievements, or not give them the credit they deserve?

I ask this because the issue has been much in the news these past few years, whether thanks to Hillary Clinton’s ever-evolving hair issues or the French parliament’s catcalling at Cécile Duflot, the housing minister, when she stood up to address her colleagues in a floral dress last year. As recently as last week, President Obama got into trouble for calling California attorney-general Kamala Harris the “best-looking” AG in the country. The blogosphere complained that the statement objectified her (he also called her “dedicated” and “brilliant” but that didn’t register in the same way). When serious female public figures get associated with fashion, it is generally seen as a negative thing. But one of the Lessons of Thatcher is: oh, c’mon. It’s not a problem. It’s a tool.

Whatever you think of her politics, her skilled use of her image was ahead of her time. Thatcher understood the power of the consistent persona, of dress as shorthand and semiology, and she used it to etch herself on to the world’s consciousness as indelibly as her reforms were to.

Whether or not you liked her look was beside the point: the point was not its trendiness (and whether it would ever make a best-dressed list) but its consistency; the fact that it was utterly recognisable, reliable and individual.

Try an experiment: close your eyes and imagine ... François Mitterrand. What do you see? Er, a dark suit? How about Ronald Reagan? OK, maybe the faux-black gelled hair. Now close your eyes, and imagine Margaret Thatcher. What do you see? A boxy handbag. A strand of pearls. A skirt suit and a pussy-bow blouse. A sweep of immobile hair. Most people may not know that from 1987 (when she went to the then-USSR) through to the end of her time in office, she wore almost entirely Aquascutum, but they will know what she looked like. She transcended the brand to become her own brand.

This didn’t escape fashion, which experienced a Thatcher renaissance around the release of Phyllida Lloyd’s movie The Iron Lady , with pussy-bow blouses popping up on runways for autumn/winter 2011. Harper’s Bazaar even did a fashion spread in which Georgia May Jagger “played” Thatcher in outfits from Valentino, Derek Lam, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta, conveying a very clear message: consistency, control. If you doubted her when she said “The lady is not for turning,” all you had to do was consider her hair. It didn’t turn either.

People talked about her look, and wrote about it, because she made it possible; she spoon-fed it to them. Baroness Thatcher’s style was as much a strategy as her approach to parliament. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged this when they added to their official lexicon the verb “to handbag”, inspired by the ex-prime minister and defined as to “verbally attack or crush (a person or idea) ruthlessly and forcefully.”

So did the market, when her actual handbag, a boxy black number from Asprey, sold at auction for £25,000 in 2011. The bag had transcended its identity as an accessory to become a symbol of history. The following year seven of Thatcher’s suits were sold at Christie’s for £73,125, with the green wool number she wore in 1975 when she was confirmed as Tory leader going for £25,000 alone.

The value lay in the fact that what she wore so identified with what she did. Thatcher understood the worth of a uniform long before President Obama admitted he wore the same dark suit and white shirt every day for its tactical advantage, and she did it in a way that distinguished herself. Granted, it was easier because she was the only female leader at the time, but still.

What surprises me now is how few of Thatcher’s heirs appear to have picked up on this technique. The closest anyone comes is perhaps Angela Merkel, with her endless trouser suits, or Boris Johnson and his immediately recognisable blonde locks. The effectiveness of this sartorial manipulation is the Thatcher legacy, alongside her actions and ideology. Except it is one with applications for us all.

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vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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