Politics of Fashion

As mentioned in “Don’t Cry For Me, Anglesey”  a recent report looked at the economic power to retailers behind Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama, among others. Men in power – they are mostly associated with food,  as food equals wealth and power and the quest for food shaping society from prehistoric days forward. However, there has been a long relationship between women in power (not solely those married to power, while exercising some of their own) that goes back to Cleopatra.

Cleopatra coin, Ptolemic Dynasty, Egypt, 48-30BC, property of the  British Museum
Cleopatra coin, Ptolemic Dynasty, Egypt, 48-30BC, property of the British Museum

The last Pharaoh of Egypt, who died when she was only 39, still has people talking today.  An Eastern female ruler who had children with two of the most famous Westerners in antiquity, Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar, Cleopatra demands the consideration of gender, power, culture and geography.  She is one of the few women to grace the title of a Shakespeare play, and even fewer women who are still written about afterwards. (When was the last time you read a salacious biography of Cressida? Or Juliet’s?)  She’s been painted by Michelangelo, homaged by Brecht and portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor.  While we know very little about what she actually looked like, Cleopatra still impacts style today, from Halloween costumes to cat eye make up.

Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist oil on panel, circa 1600 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, artist unknown
oil on panel, circa 1600
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I of Great Britain is a female in a position of power who has not gone out of style. Known for dresses dripping (apparently, literally) in jewels, and her Tudor red gold hair, the Queen used her style not only to convey power through wealth but also to hide any imperfections.  Having had smallpox, and relying on medieval dental practices, in actuality, by the end of her reign, Elizabeth I was scarred and missing teeth.  But with a red wig, lead makeup and rags stuffed in her cheeks, she presented someone whose power was not dimmed by her age.  While her dress style changed over her 70 year lifespan, her red wig did not.  Elizabeth harkened back to Kings of England and Scotland by always being seen as a redhead.  The earliest record of Kingly Gingerness was Richard the Lionhearted, who was said to have red-gold hair.


The queen usually favors a black patent leather version.
The queen usually favors a black patent leather version.

Elizabeth II, like Elizabeth I, has stuck to a signature accessory.  She’s gone gray gracefully, managed to match her gloves to her shoes, to her clothes to her hat but has remained faithful to one handbag.  Like any savvy, uber-busy 21st lady, The Queen knows a good, convenient thing when she spots it, and is rumored to have 22 different versions of the $2000 Launer Bag she has worn since the 1960s.  The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher apparently also always carried Launer bag.   It was from this bag that Elizabeth II recently revoked the “thou-shall-not-apply-lipstick-in-public” rule.

Angela Merkel has also invoked the “I like it, I feel good in it, I’m going to keep using it” rule.  At various functions over the last 18 years, the German Chancellor has appeared in a kimono esque open front silk coat thing.  It may have a single term in German, but apparently that doesn’t translate well.  What does translate is that BILD found the Chancelor wearing the same article of clothing in 1996, 2002 and 2014 and not only complemented her on staying true to herself, but called her beautiful.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (among other things) rotates between three necklaces.  Her favorites are a quadruple strand of pearls, a quadruple strand of smaller pearls with a swag that hangs down, and a single strand of large pearls.  A note on researching images for blog posts – never search a woman’s name and the term “pearl necklace” – the results are disturbing.

From Smithsonian Mag
From Smithsonian Mag

Upping Robinson, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has a much bigger arsenal of accesories to rotate.  Her accessory of choice – pins.  So many pins she wrote a book about them (Read My Pins), and curated an exhibit at the Smithsonian of her jewelery.  Albright’s diplomatic accessories gave her a non-verbal way to express herself or situation.

Albright speaking to the Smithsonian Mag on her pins: It all began when I was at the United Nations. It was right after the Gulf War and the United States was pressing for resolutions sanctioning Iraq. During that time I had something dreadful to say about Saddam Hussein on a daily basis, which he deserved because he had invaded Kuwait. The government-controlled Iraqi media then compared me to an “unparalleled serpent.” I happened to have a snake pin, and wore it to my next meeting on Iraq. When the press asked me about it, I thought, “Well, this is fun.” I was the only woman on the Security Council, and I decided to get some more costume jewelry. On good days, I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, all kinds of bugs and carnivorous animals. I saw it as an additional way of expressing what I was saying, a visual way to deliver a message.

First Lady during Albright’s reign as Secretary of State in the Bill Clinton White House, former Senator from New York and Secretary of State in her own right, Hilary Clinton’s sense of style has evolved from wearing a headband and a myriad of hairstyles, showing her domesticity and presumably to downplay her own power (prior to that she was Yale educated lawyer who tried Nixon, just saying) to unleashing the power of the pants suit.  As her public persona has evolved from First Lady to globetrotting powerbroker, Clinton’s has regained her style groove, from frumpy to the cover of Vogue.

From www.the-broad-side.com
From http://www.the-broad-side.com

So the question remaining is, if the US ever has a First Mister/Gent/Guy/Gentleman/Laddy  – will he be associated with an accessory or a food?

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