No small talk, more shoes

The first British female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May is said to be a woman of few words. In the past her stubborn lack of social affability has been a source of bemusement and frustration to her colleagues. She is described as being meticulously businesslike with a dry sense of humour. “She has no small talk whatsoever. None,” said Nick Clegg of his former ministerial colleague in the twilight years of coalition.

She did little to correct that impression in her brisk assessment of the qualities she would bring to the job of prime minister. “I’m not a showy politician,” announced the 59-year-old conservative stalwart.

The menfolk find her quiet, controlled demeanour unnerving. After all, it’s not considered real gamesmanship to keep one’s mouth shut in politics — as we have witnessed time and again as this sorry political debacle has unfolded. Had her peers paid closer attention to anything other than the sound of their own voices, they would have realised May is quite voluble. Because the new prime minister speaks fashion. And she speaks it quite loudly.

Wearing thigh-high patent boots © Getty

May learnt more than a decade ago that an artfully timed style statement can speak louder than words. Ever since she had the audacity to wear a pair of leopard-print kitten heels from Russell & Bromley to berate her “nasty party” at the Tory conference in 2002, she’s mastered the art of feminine projection. The shoes in question guaranteed her a platform on every front page in the land — and well beyond it. And she’s been scooping her rivals with a statement accessory or a “controversial” look ever since.

Style statements, as women instinctively understand (and men don’t need to because they rarely need to try and get a word in edgeways), ensure unwavering attention. Most people won’t remember the finer details of George Osborne’s last budget speech in March, but they do recall the spectacle of May’s plunging cleavage on the front row of the Commons. It was an excellent act of sartorial sabotage — and she didn’t say a word. May’s style may be unorthodox — let us not overlook the thigh-high patent boots she wore to welcome Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife Angélica Rivera, and greet the Queen in, last year — but it’s a delightful change. And I applaud it.

In this new age of female leadership we should expect May’s strategic wardrobe choices to dominate much of the political conversation that follows. For some, this will be a sad state of the media age we live in. Others still won’t get it. But, watch carefully, and you’ll see how her clothes tell another story, filling in the edges of her personality and revealing more about her character than many of her prewritten speeches.

Rather than mask her femininity, like Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel in their strangely asexual pantsuits and block colours, May is a graduate of the same school as Thatcher when it comes to political power dressing. She dresses to look like a woman. She confounds expectation, and works her feminine style to political advantage. “She wears the clothes to show she is not the person you think she is,” her former spin-doctor Katie Perrior told The Spectator. “Her dress sense shows that risk-taking side.”

Wearing a Vivienne Westwood tartan trouser suit © Charlie Bibby

May isn’t afraid of a sexy look. She’s provocative. She’s fashion-forward (she and Cara Delevingne both own the same Vivienne Westwood wide-legged tartan trouser suit). And she doesn’t give a damn. For every outfit that has enraged the commentariat, she has worn another, more daring, outfit next. One imagines she has a picture of Helen Mirren taped to her fridge. Both women of a certain age and professional distinction, they demonstrate a similarly devilish disdain for “age-appropriate” clothing and a to-hell-with-it attitude.

That May appreciates fashion is well known. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014, she requested a lifetime’s subscription to Vogue as a luxury and observed that “women shouldn’t feel they have to walk like a man”. She likes clothes, and although she possesses discount cards for the interminably dull British brands LK Bennett, Hobbs and Amanda Wakeley, one hopes that her more visible presence on the international stage will push her towards even edgier wardrobe choices.

As an active supporter of British designers, she has worn Stella McCartney, Mulberry and Westwood in the past. Now she’s in the top job she can really let fly. It would be great, for example, if she might consider embracing a few European houses — a Gucci pyjama suit perhaps or a Chanel skirt suit — in these tense political times. She could consider her wardrobe as an act of international diplomacy. (Speaking to the Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano last week, I wondered how he would feel about the house’s first female designer Maria Grazia Chiuri reimagining the house’s famous Bar jackets for Britain’s new female prime minister. He didn’t seem altogether horrified by the idea.)

True, May’s taste can veer towards the eccentric — the leopard-print wellies she wore to address the party conference in 2007 were certainly a wild card — but she remains unapologetic about her choices. And rightly so. “I have no regrets [about being famous for my shoes],” she once told a reporter. “The good thing is that they are often an icebreaker.”

Which all suggests very forcibly to me that accusations of May’s inability to make small talk are utterly wrong. Because anyone who can’t strike up a bit of chit-chat with a woman who’s just addressed the House of Commons wearing a skin-tight, animal-printed, flesh-coloured dress simply isn’t listening very carefully. Or they’re asking some pretty bloody boring questions. Personally, I can’t wait to see what she’ll say next.

jo.ellison@ft.com; @jellison

Letter in response to this column:

Sartorial focus doesn’t fit / From Anthony Hurst

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