Given the obsessive attention routinely paid to what Michelle Obama or Samantha Cameron wears, it struck me that when Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as president of Chile this month, no one mentioned what she wore: a long navy jacket and matching skirt with a red, white and blue presidential sash.
Even more notably, in a photo taken that day, Bachelet was sandwiched between Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, who was wearing a black straight skirt and a black and white plaid collarless jacket with black lace appliqué, and Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in a white lace dress under a white car coat with white open-toe platform pumps. And no one said anything about them either.
When a huge hoo-ha was made about Hillary Clinton’s clothes during her last presidential run, her response was that no one would care what she wore if she was a man. So you’d have thought that the wardrobes of these female leaders would have come in for forensic media examination.
It seems to me there are two possible reasons why they didn’t: either these leaders are the exceptions that prove the rule alluded to by Clinton; or they are a clear signal that it is time for a new rule.
Fernández was famous, initially, for her floral dresses and hyper-feminine choices. Then she was famous for wearing only black – but a different black outfit every day – after her husband, former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner, died in 2010. Then, in January, after an operation for a bloodclot in her brain, she began appearing again in public in mainly white outfits, all of which speaks to such obvious symbolism (mourning, rebirth, purity of intention, and so on) that it’s hard to imagine pundits not seizing on semiotics.
Yet while she got some slack for the amount of money her many outfits and Birkin bags must have cost, they sparked nothing like the amount of wordage (or umbrage) that similar choices would probably have created elsewhere. Of course, as a friend in South America points out, that could be because other things Fernández is doing simply spark more umbrage. But, still, is it a coincidence that Laura Chinchilla, president of Costa Rica, appeared on Vanity Fair’s 2013 best-dressed politicians list (the only one of the Latin American leaders to make it) while back home, though considered a “power dresser”, her clothes choices go largely unexamined? I doubt it.
Is this a cultural thing, indicating an ease with the idea of female power in Latin America that North America and Europe simply have not yet achieved? Is it an example of geopolitical elitism – that those in fashion-obsessed countries simply don’t pay much attention to leaders in southern states? Or is it an indication that after decades of inequality when it comes to the way we talk about and judge male and female politicians, the playing field is starting to level?
The answer, to some extent, is all of the above; a friend who is a Latin America specialist points out two streams of stereotype when it comes to Latin American women and dress. One is they will be well-groomed and look a certain way. The other leans on the Guevara/Castro revolutionary idea of utilitarian clothing; how leaders look simply fulfils expectations.
But there is also a more strategic – and universal – factor at work. While Fernández clearly uses her wardrobe as a means of public communication, Bachelet and Rousseff seem to have adopted the Angela Merkel approach to dressing: adopt a uniform.
In Merkel’s case, it is a pair of straight-cut trousers paired with a contrast three-button jacket with diagonal pockets by German designer Bettina Schoenbach. For Bachelet, it is a tone-on-tone skirt suit. For Rousseff, it is a straight skirt and jacket with three-quarter length sleeves. Apparently, 80 per cent of her wardrobe involves three-quarter length sleeves. The idea being that, like her clothing choices, she is steady and reliable.
Dressing this way has another strategic advantage: once the uniform has been noted, there is really nothing more to say about it. And in case you think this has not been fully digested by the women in question, consider that when Rousseff decided to stand for election for her first term in 2010, she got a new hair-do and changed her smile but refused Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch’s efforts to make her wardrobe more interesting.
By contrast, Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron provide endless fodder for clothing chat because they do not have a uniform; they change clothes continually because they see part of their job as First Partner as promoting their respective fashion industries. By acting as the physical equivalents of global shop windows, they continually give observers something new to say.
In other words, perhaps this is not a gender thing after all but a job thing. And, perhaps, it’s time we started addressing the difference. Pun intended.
More columns at ft.com/friedman