‘Legs-it’ and the naked truth about women in the public eye

Undressing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon
Image of Jo Ellison

The great tragedy of the “Legs-it” front page published by British tabloid paper The Daily Mail this week was not that the prime minister Theresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon were judged by their clothes. But that their clothes only provided punctuation to a far more abusive judgment in which their garments were discarded so they could be pitted against each other in a battle of the “shapely shanks”. The politicians were undressed, like lumps of meat, and subjected to a scrutiny a judge might offer contestants participating in a local beauty pageant.

Bizarrely both were dressed according to the ancient patriarchal code of what is deemed appropriate for women in public office — smart tailored suits, modest jewellery, professional hair and sheer tights. Exactly the sort of ensembles tabloid papers like to fawn over, because they are womanly and attractive (not like those other female politicians, such as the matronly Angela Merkel, for example, who insists on wearing dowdy trouser suits that won’t even allow us a gawk at her ankles). Otherwise they were unremarkable. The outfits were singled out both for their similarity — an observation made by people who have clearly never been in a room of professional women — and for their comparative costs. Nicola Sturgeon wore Hobbs, while Theresa May wore a more expensive £595 jacket by Amanda Wakeley. Quite how anyone can still think this an extravagance, when one considers the eye-bleedingly high price tags of those €12,000 Arnys suits favoured by French presidential candidate François Fillon, is stupefying.

Anyway, who cares? They may as well have both worn bathing suits for all the seriousness the meeting was accorded. The clothes mattered not at all. It was the legs that clinched it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of Theresa May’s legs. Likewise Nicola Sturgeon’s. I just despair of a culture in which all discussion of female appearance and clothing transpires to be a way in which to reduce her to her natural state. Our queasy obsession with the female body has not evolved one jot. Amal Clooney “showed off her baby bump” while wearing a black suit on her way to a meeting at the UN. Did she? Or is she just a pregnant woman heading to an office where elasticated pants might be frowned on? An actress “flaunts her enviable” curves while holidaying on a private island where she believes herself to be out of range of the paparazzi lenses.

Woman has body. This shouldn’t be interesting. Clothes, on the other hand, are completely fascinating. I could talk about Theresa May’s style all day. I applaud the way she “shrobed” her jacket for a portrait taken by the eminent celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz for US Vogue this month. Likewise, the way she played the scarlet woman in a jaunty red overcoat while gambolling about the gardens at Chequers. Of course her clothes merit attention, although not necessarily on the front pages, and not in lieu of any other discussion surrounding the circumstances of her being photographed in the first place, such as the future of the UK.

As a way to offer another, slightly tangential perspective on a person’s personality, however, clothes are an excellent study. And I love a public figure — female or male — who embraces fashion. Just look at Barack Obama’s post-presidential style since leaving the White House. The man who told Vanity Fair that as president he only wore blue or grey suits in order to “pare down decisions . . . because I have too many other decisions to make” appears to have taken all the time in the world over the details of his wardrobe in recent weeks. Everything from the mirrored, wraparound shades he wore to go kitesurfing with Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands, to the newly relaxed fit of his open-necked shirts, to the conker-brown leather aviator jacket he wore on a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington on March 5, has suggested a highly curated approach to the act of looking casual. From Potus to Relaxed Man, his new look seems to be channelling a stylish secret agent.

The physical transformation has not been without comment. But were Obama a woman, one would presumably have expected to read about him “flaunting” his abs on the beach while engaged in some sort of brawl with his peer as to who looked better in their swimmers. We might have enjoyed a few lines about Obama’s “long extremities”, or how his feet were arranged in a “flattering diagonal” line.

Instead, comment has focused largely on his emotional happiness: his new casual wardrobe used to characterise the outward manifestation of his intellectual fufilment. No one would dare undress him.

And that’s the naked truth. Even when women dress the part, even when they wear all the right things, and conform to every boring stereotype, they still get stripped bare in the end.

@jellison; jo.ellison@ft.com

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