Why Do We Care What Female Politicians Are Wearing? A blog by Ailish Toal
Last year, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald wore the same suit two days in a row. A shocking concept, I know. In an opinion piece for the Irish Times, Noel Whelan noted that this had been pointed out in an article in the Irish Daily Mail, with two pictures showing her wearing the outfits to illustrate this. (Whelan, 2015) According to Whelan (2015), it received “almost as much prominence in the newspaper as coverage of the event itself”. He went on to say that to some people, female politicians are judged more by what they wear, than what they say or do. Is this true? There is much evidence to suggest that female politicians are judged more on their outfit choices than their male colleagues, but why do we care? What does it matter what suit the Minister for Justice decided to wear – does this affect her ability as a politician? Surely not.
Fitzgerald is not the only one. According to Sinn Fein councillor Lisa Marie Sheehy other councillors often comment on her clothing choice, even one stating “How can you concentrate when people are dressed like that?” She was wearing shorts and black tights. (McLysaght, 2015), While, yes, professional attire is considered essential for a politician, why are women judged more harshly than men on this? The female politicians in question are not being criticised for wearing inappropriate clothing, but rather their bad fashion sense. Forbes magazine criticised German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “frumpy power suits” and “silly pageboy haircut” (Courtney, 2015). Politicians are not in the fashion industry. What they chose to wear should not influence public opinion, as long as they are doing their job. It should not have an impact on voters during election time, but unfortunately it does. Fine Gael politician Kate O’Connell outlined her experiences in an article for The Journal (O’Connell, 2015). Whilst running for election in 2014, O’Connell explains that her clothing choices were an important part of her campaign. “Despite my motivation to develop health policy and further women’s rights, my appearance shot up the agenda – what would I wear in the poster, what length should I keep my hair, what sent the right message?” (O’Connell, 2015). The unfortunate truth is that these aspects of O’Connell’s appearance were sure to influence voters’ opinion of her. While likability is key for any politician, appearance appears to be a bigger element for female politician’s likability than it is for male politicians. As O’Connell (2015) put it, “by reducing a woman’s worth down to her appearance, we slyly diminish her role and her value as a contributor to society”.
When I read Charles Moore’s article in The Spectator (2015), evaluating whether British politicians Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall had the right look to be leaders to the Labour Party, I was sure it was satire, but sadly this was not the case. Stating that the “right woman” to win a general election for Labour would have to conform to two physical types, which he later went on to describe, seemed like it had to be a joke. Lines like “No leader – especially, despite the age of equality, a woman – can look grotesque on television and win a general election” had me laughing out loud. But is it true? Do women have to adhere to a certain physical type to win voters over? According to Moore, yes. She must either be a lower-middle class version of Clare Balding, “reassuring, competent, well rounded, possibly lesbian”; or else she must be “more provocative and sassy”. Moore also believes that Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1975 was due to the fact that many older Tory politicians fancied her. Liz Kendall’s response to the article? “Good grief”. (Hennessy, 2015) Took the words right out of my mouth.
While these outwardly sexist articles are quite uncommon, it is not unlike the media to present a female politician in a more subtle sexist manner. In an interview with Kendall for the British Mail on Sunday (Walters, 2015) regarding her intention to run for leadership of the Labour Party, subtle (and not so subtle) examples of sexism are obvious. Firstly, she is referred to numerous times as “unmarried”. While the interview did discuss some details of politics, it had the air of an article you would read in a fashion magazine. Why it matters where Kendall buys her clothes I have no idea, but in case you were wondering, the article included a picture of Kendall’s outfit and where you could purchase each item, as well as how much they cost. “The Liz look isn’t cheap” (ibid.) apparently. In case you were basing your voting preferences on where candidates buy their clothes, you might have a hard time, as there doesn’t appear to be a similar article on Jeremey Corbyn anywhere. Guess you’ll never know where Corbyn shops, but I imagine that won’t affect your decision. If a candidates’ weight is also a factor, Walters (2015) does his best to help you out – he imagines Kendall is about 8 stone, similar to Kate Middleton. Unfortunately, when he tries to confirm this, Kendall tells him to “f**k off”, (ibid.) so I guess you’ll never know.
However, it is not that male politicians never face criticism for their clothing or appearance, rather that it happens far less, and has less of a negative impact than it does for women. A study carried out by Hayes and Lawless (Krupnick, 2013) suggested that, actually, both genders suffered equally from negative coverage of their clothing. However, this conclusion was based on an experiment that included negative descriptions, such as “dishevelled and sloppy”, rather than simply describing what they were wearing. These negative descriptions are what will affect opinions of politicians – nobody wants someone described as “sloppy” to represent them. So yes, when a politician’s appearance is scrutinized, it affects both genders equally. However, it is without a doubt that women’s appearance is mentioned and scrutinized far more than men’s in the media. In 2013, German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (Opydo, 2013) criticised Angela Merkel on her fashion sense. “Too long pants, too tight jackets, awful colours. Everything is wrong!” He went on to say that while he is willing to give her fashion advice, she is too busy. A politician who’s too busy doing her job to seek fashion advice? Imagine that. Granted, Lagerfeld is a fashion designer, and is bound to focus on people’s clothes. He’s also criticised Michelle Obama and the Middleton sisters’ fashion sense. However, while he has criticised male politicians – it’s been on their policies, rather than the clothes they wear. He accused President Francois Hollande of destroying France’s economy by imposing high taxes on the rich. No mention of his clothes. According to Sweet (2008) the reason for there being a much bigger focus on female politicians’ fashion sense than males, is due to the fact that men effectively wear a uniform. Women on the other hand, have a much bigger scope in what they wear and how they present themselves, and therefore pay a “heavy price” (ibid.) if these choices are not liked by the public. “Male politicians, by donning the uniform and largely taking away the issue of fashion judgements, can then be evaluated more according to their performance and positions. Women, who have yet to escape the fashion judgement issue, continue to be evaluated on those choices as well as on their platforms (not the shoes) and comportment.” (Sweet, 2008)
So why is this the case? In my opinion, hegemonic masculinity theory comes into play here. Many women in politics essentially rid themselves of their ‘feminine’ traits – they must don the ‘uniform’ of politics – which, as it is a field dominated by men, means wearing a suit, little make up, and a simple appearance. O’Connell (2015) states that she wore pink and some costume jewellery in her campaign poster, and was criticised for doing so. Many people stated that the poster was feeding into the idea that women in politics shouldn’t be taken seriously and that she was “trading on [her] femininity”. According to some, the poster reinforced the stereotype that women are “somewhat frivolous”. (O’Connell, 2015) I have never heard anyone criticise a man for trading on his masculinity in an election campaign. What is wrong with appearing feminine in politics? O’Connell felt in order to be taken seriously she had to keep her hair sensible and her make up natural. (O’Connell, 2015) Women who appear too feminine are criticised, and women who appear too masculine are, unfortunately, also criticised. Clinton’s pantsuits are constantly a topic of critique, and according to Karl Lagerfeld, Merkel’s attire are like “the clothes for a guy.” (Opydo, 2013)
While there is some evidence to suggest that voters care about what male politicians wear, and that this can negatively affect voters’ opinions of them, it is without a doubt that women are scrutinized far more for their attire in the media and in public opinion. Just Google “Hillary Clinton fashion” and you will get thousands of results. Bernie Sanders? I Googled it and got one single relevant result, discussing his hair. So yes, it happens to male politicians – but it happens a lot more to women. The unfortunate truth is that male and female politicians are simply judged by different criteria.
Courtney, L. (2015) ‘Women in politics are judged on their favourite designers, not political beliefs’, The Journal, 13 September. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/women-politics-looks-opinion-2325370-Sep2015/ [9 November]
Hennessy, M. (2015) ‘This magazine questioned whether two female politicians were good looking enough to be leaders’, The Journal, 24 August. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/the-spectator-labour-female-candidates-2289694-Aug2015/ [9 November]
Krupnick, E. (2013) ‘Female Politicians’ Clothing: Does it Affect What Voters Really Think?’, The Huffington Post, 25 June. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/25/female-politicians-clothing_n_3495462.html. [12 November]
McLysaght, E. (2015). 7 times this century sexism in Irish politics made us cringe. Available at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/sexism-irish-politics-2226483-Jul2015/ [Accessed 9 November]
Moore, C. (2015) ‘Do Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall look like leaders?’, The Spectator, 23 August. Available at: http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/have-yvette-cooper-and-liz-kendall-got-the-looks-for-a-leadership-contest/ [9 November]
O’Connell, K. (2015) ‘Women will always be judged on appearance, I was told I ‘let the side down’ by wearing pink’, The Journal, 7 September. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/kate-o-connell-women-appearance-politics-2311912-Sep2015/ [9 November]
Opydo, K. (2013) ‘Karl Lagerfeld criticises Angela Merkel for her dress sense’, Le Journal International, 3 September. Available at: http://www.lejournalinternational.fr/Karl-Lagerfeld-criticises-Angela-Merkel-for-her-dress-sense_a1199.html. [12 November]
Sweet, D. (2008) ‘Fashion victims: female politicians face different criticism than men’, McGill Reporter, 18 November. Available at: http://publications.mcgill.ca/reporter/2008/11/fashion-victims-female-political-leaders-face-different-criticism-than-men/. [12 November]
Walters, S. (2015) ‘Labour’s Liz Kendall says she won’t work with ‘ridiculous’ Left-winger Jeremy Corbyn and reveals how childless slur made her blood boil’, The Daily Mail, 19 July. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3166827/Labour-s-Liz-lashes-Leadership-hopeful-Kendall-says-won-t-work-ridiculous-left-winger-Jeremy-Corbyn-childless-slur-blood-boil-attacks-Ed-Miliband-worrying-poor-much.html [9 November]
Whelan, N. (2015) ‘2015, but some remain preoccupied with women politicians’ dress’, Irish Times, 6 November. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/2015-but-some-remain-preoccupied-with-women-politicians-dress-1.2418852. [6 November 2015]
I’m Ailish Toal, I’m a 20 year old History and Politics student from North Dublin. I come from a family of strong, independent women and I’ve always been interested in feminist issues.