The makeover moment is a stock cinematic trope – whether it involves a secretary removing her glasses or the Pretty Woman path from tarty to tasteful – and the new film The Iron Lady, a biopic of Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, is no exception.
When Streep’s Margaret Thatcher plans to run for leader she is advised by Conservative strategists to stop wearing frumpy hats and wifely pearls, accoutrements that might distract voters from her formidable credentials.
The result? Mrs Thatcher surrendered the hats but not the pearls, which her husband Denis had given to her after the birth of their twins in 1953.
Her unwillingness to budge on this issue proved a harbinger of the style she would adopt as prime minister. In picking and choosing the ingredients of her look she created not only a new kind of power dressing – pearls, brooch, large round earrings, pussy bow blouses, blue boxy skirt suits, sensible pumps – but also a new tradition among female political players.
The process by which she forged this look is a sartorial rite of passage that many women in the public eye have experienced now and throughout history. In 18th-century France, for example, King Louis XV would not approve his heir’s marriage to Marie-Antoinette until she had undergone extensive cosmetic dental work (sans anaesthesia) and allowed a top Parisian hairdresser to tame her unkempt locks. Nearly two centuries later, to guard against claims that her taste in clothes was insufficiently patriotic, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy enlisted the American designer Oleg Cassini to copy her favourite French designs.
Lady Thatcher’s makeover, so critical to her path from shopkeeper’s daughter to formidable politician, saw her evolve a style and a system of props – such as her rigid handbag – that turned a look imposed upon her into one that suited her agenda.
Having agreed to jettison the mumsy hats, she adopted a signature bouffant hairstyle, an imposing helmet of heavily lacquered immovable hair that suggested an unflinching toughness.
Historian and FT contributing editor Simon Schama says of the look: “Her helmet coiffure [could] resist the stiffest of breezes. She said, ‘The lady’s not for turning,’ but she could just as easily have meant her hairdo.”
Lady Thatcher’s mode of self-presentation could be seen as a reflection of her tough-as-nails persona. Like her hairstyle, the exaggeratedly broad shoulders of her Aquascutum power suits projected a forbidding image; an essential piece of sartorial armour in a masculine milieu.
Marianne Abrahams, the creative director of Aquascutum during the Thatcher years, confirmed that her famous client put a lot of thought into this particular sartorial detail, saying at the time, “She knows precisely what she wants and she’s very particular about the shoulders.”
The resulting silhouette identified Thatcher with a predominantly male ruling elite. Recalling her friendship with President Reagan, the designer Isaac Mizrahi says: “In the 1980s I used to bet people that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the same person. If we put a wig on Reagan, wouldn’t it be Thatcher?”
And then there was François Mitterrand’s legendary bon mot about the British prime minister having “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of [Marilyn] Monroe.”
On such a figure’s arm, even the ne plus ultra of ladylike accessories, the handbag, became an instrument of ruthless conquest. During her years at Number 10, underlings who incurred Lady Thatcher’s displeasure lived in fear of being “handbagged” – getting the sack.
The former PM’s boxy, no-frills black Asprey handbag was surrounded by so much mythology it commanded £25,000 in a charity auction earlier this year, prompting her daughter, Carol, to comment: “I hope that the highest bidder knows that … he’s got a weapon with quite a track record. After all, my mother invented the verb ‘to handbag’.”
In 1990, Lady Thatcher herself joked that she kept top government secrets in her bag, as it was the most “leak-proof” place she knew. Although offered in jest, this underscores perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Lady Thatcher’s wardrobe choices: their utter subordination to the job at hand.
Asked about her own sense of style, Lady Thatcher disclosed that her ideal outfit was one not “full of creases” after she’d travelled “by aircraft” to meet a foreign head of state. Neat, respectable “tailoreds” also governed her domestic style of dress, “because, if you think about it, I’m on duty the whole time … [I’m in my] best clothes seven days a week, because, you know, I’m seeing people.”
Like the helmet-shaped hairdo and the padded shoulders, Lady Thatcher’s emphasis on “seeing people”, rather than being seen, upended traditional expectations about the woman’s role in political life.
As Mizrahi points out, Thatcher can be commended for “not even trying to be sexy”, for having concerned herself with more pressing issues than, for example, whether Reagan or Mitterrand would find her alluring.
According to handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, a self-professed Thatcher fan, “The cleverest thing about Thatcher’s image was how her clothes never detracted from her character. That was quite a feat, I suspect, to look good and still not be talked about for your clothes.”
This may be the other most significant sartorial contribution of The Iron Lady. It reminds us of a time when, unlike today, and the example of the doughty Angela Merkel notwithstanding, it was much easier for a female politician to appear to put fashion low on her list of priorities.
Caroline Weber is author of ‘Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the Revolution’