Cracking the dress code

by Jane Goodall

GERMAINE GREER HAD been responding to a questioner on the ABC's Q&A program (March 19, 2012), who asked what advice the panel would give to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard on her image problem. Gillard's style was dry and somewhat terse, Greer said, but there were lots of good things about her. She was an administrator, who knew how to get things done. 'It's unglamorous, it's not star material but it's what she's been doing… What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets!'

The last comment was a flash of mischievous insight that seemed to take Greer herself by surprise, following the rather sober way she'd approached the question. Clearly enjoying the instantaneous response from the studio audience, she added: 'They don't fit.' If only she had stopped there, but by now the impulse to stir was irresistible. The jackets didn't fit because they were cut too narrow in the hips. 'You've got a big arse, Julia. Get over it.' That was the line that went viral, and Greer was widely condemned for a betrayal of feminist principles. At her next appearance on Q&A, she was called to account but was unrepentant, and provoked a kind of scandalised hilarity as she expanded freely on the matter of the Prime Minister's body shape and the need to rejoice in the fullness of female anatomy.

Somewhere in all this, a genuine insight was being lost: that at some level, the cut of the Prime Minister's jacket does matter, and that to get it wrong signals a lack of one of the many competencies required in the role. Greer's fix on the jacket question is in line with her fierce concern for technique and construction across a whole range of things, from car engines to Shakespeare sonnets. As a literary scholar, Greer also has a finely tuned instinct for metaphor, and at that particular stage in the political cycle, Julia Gillard risked looking as if she was not cut out for the role of prime minister; her preference for over-sculpted jackets bearing no comfortable relationship to her body shape served to underline the impression that there was a lack of fit.

It is quite possible that a change of style for a female political leader could help to reverse a slide in approval ratings, but Germaine Greer was making a more particular point before she veered off track. She was, quite explicitly, targeting the jackets, and the exhortation was not to get better ones but to get rid of them. This, when you think about it, was a bold and radical piece of advice. A political leader with no jackets?

As a garment conceived to give form to the human silhouette, the jacket expresses a relationship between form and formality; and as a staple item of business attire, it is a mandatory part of the western male dress code for formal occasions. Women have other options, but women in prominent political roles have generally resisted exploring them. There is a feminist issue here, though not the one that was running in the blog lines about the exchanges on Q&A. The earnest principle that professional women should not have to deal with a primary focus on their appearance has become over familiar, and Greer was deliberately flouting it, but in doing so she may have touched on a more interesting question: a question about the relationship between male and female dress codes and the ways in which power roles are culturally defined.

There are examples of female political leaders from non-western cultures who have adapted traditional female dress to create a personal image free of any suggestion that they are in roles defined by masculine conventions. Benazir Bhutto and Aung San Suu Kyi show how a woman in long skirts of beautiful fabrics, with a veil over her head or flowers in her hair, can look strong, elegant and distinctive. Yet western dress conventions for political leaders of both sexes are based on masculine traditions of business attire, in which the suit works to standardise the personal silhouette, creating smooth, subdued outlines for the lower body and with all the visual accent on the collar area, to draw attention upwards to the face. There is a literal aspect to focusing on the 'head' in business. Attempts to feminise the look – through diversified approaches to the cut of the jacket, the introduction of bold color in fabric choices, and the addition of pearls and crusty brooches – only make the anomaly more conspicuous.

WHAT IS CALLED 'power dressing' is essentially a phenomenon of the 1980s, belonging to the culture of social conservatism, economic rationalism and corporate ambition associated with that era.Following the publication of John T Molloy's book Dress for Success in 1975, the image of the career woman gained increasing currency, but it was Margaret Thatcher who really established the look. When she stood outside 10 Downing Street in May 1979, prepared to cross the threshold as the newly elected Prime Minister, Thatcher's appearance was contrived to go with an artificially softened voice and sentiments to match. Against the black stone of the building and the grey of the London street, the vibrant blue of her suit, complemented by a light print blouse, still carried vestiges of a prettiness belonging to a former era. The short jacket, contoured around the waist, and mid-calf skirt flaring out in sunray pleats recalled Dior's 1947 'new look,' and the return of a womanly silhouette after the austerities of the war years.

As she spoke the lines from the prayer of St Francis – 'Where there is discord, may we bring harmony… And where there is despair, may we bring hope' – it was as if Thatcher was momentarily blessed with the genuine belief that she came to bring a state of grace to the nation, and the soft lines and Madonna blue of her clothing supported the message. As she grew firmer and more assertive in the new role, her suits evolved accordingly. Lapels were accentuated with contrast fabrics, shoulders widened, skirts straightened, blouses were tied off with a flourish in outsized bows at the neck. The blues intensified, becoming more royal, and alternating with black and white or red as chromatic anchors. Her hair was swept higher and wider around the temples so that her head quite literally seemed to expand.

These tendencies coincided with general trends in the fashion world of the 1980s, a decade in which the hippie ideals of the postwar baby boom were abandoned and Generation X focused on the competition for advancement on the corporate ladder. In the 2011 film The Iron Lady, Thatcher's outfits are accurately replicated but the overall look is freed from some of the hard-edged mannerism of the eighties, so that she appears more streamlined and elegant than was actually the case. Thatcher set out to be the mould of form but not the glass of fashion; her image served to define the conservatism she expressed in her policies and every outfit she wore was 'on message'.

Over the ensuing decades, though, the message appears to have got lost somewhere, as leading women from both sides of politics continue to observe a dress code that is caught in a timewarp. Some obvious factors come to bear on the choices they make. Politicians who are at the mercy of constant opinion polling are understandably risk-averse in the business of creating and maintaining a public image, and women in positions of corporate leadership must command the confidence of peers and shareholders. The shifting aesthetics of the fashion world are dangerous ground for those who must project a sense of stalwartness and personal consistency, so a look that is only marginally influenced by style trends is the safest option.

For those who work an exhausting schedule involving international commitments, there is also an aspect of sheer convenience. Hillary Clinton's adoption of the pantsuit as a personal uniform is a way of opting out of the whole business of personal styling, in order to concentrate on matters of larger importance. Angela Merkel, with a similar approach, has a range of long-line jackets in different colours, all cut to the same pattern and worn with black trousers. Such conscious stylists as Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice are more various in their choices, but operate within the same set of conventions, assembling their outfits around versions of the sculpted jacket and fitted skirt or pants, accessorised with pearls.

So-called power dressing is a vexing paradox. It is associated with risk avoidance rather than adventure, conformity rather than trail blazing and innovation. It is a form of stylistic paralysis. In December 2012, Hillary Clinton addressed delegates at the NATO headquarters in Brussels wearing a jacket with edged lapels that might have cut on the same pattern as many of those in Thatcher's wardrobe. It's curious that women in powerful positions choose to present themselves in a style that is an anachronism even as they grapple with the most urgent issues of the moment in an endeavor to set directions for the future.

THIS IS A job for the fashion police if ever there was one, but their chief superintendent, Joan Rivers, is herself one of the worst offenders, sporting big hair, big shoulders, and aggressively cut jackets long after the 1980s have faded into history. However, the most intimidating prosecutor of fashion offences is not actually Rivers, it is Dame Edna Everage, who set her own style of power dressing through the 1980s while dispensing advice to the Queen and Prime Minister, both of whom she upstaged with a dazzling array of alternative ideas about what to wear on the world stage. The Everage wardrobe is a jacket-free zone.

When Dame Edna shimmied onto the set of the Joan Rivers Show in a silver dress, Rivers exclaimed with apparent spontaneity: 'You look lovely, lovely, lovely!' The dress, with its glittering cha-cha fringe, was one of Edna's showgirl-inspired creations, ornamented with a monstrous lizard brooch and other pieces of heavily spangled kitsch. However far she travels from her origins in Moonee Ponds, Edna continues to embody a suburban housewife's dreams of power: being the only woman in the neighbourhood with a fur coat; looking in the mirror and seeing herself as a film star; being announced as guest of honour at a royal garden party. Such fantasies belong to a grey, post-war world in which Greer's The Female Eunuch had yet to make an appearance. They are the dreams we are supposed to have left behind, as we surf the waves of equal opportunity and learn to exercise real power in the real world.

But the powers of fantasy should not be underestimated. These are the powers that have always belonged predominantly to women and they obey no rules. Part of the joy of fantasy life is its promiscuity. There are so many different kinds of power to imagine, and Dame Edna claims them all. She is diva, queen and wicked witch bearing a gladiolus wand. Wherever and whatever she is, she is always the domineering presence, commanding and manipulating the responses of a mass audience. There is, of course, the consideration that she is not a 'she' at all, but this is a game of hypothesis and virtual identity, which is in essence what the fashion industry is about.

THERE ARE FASHIONS in power as there are in clothes, and the two are intimately related. Leaf through the pages of Vogue, and what comes across is an evolving phantasmagoria, in which female identity games are played out between past and future imaginings. The aristocratic lady in formal evening gown, the mesmerising showgirl, the rock chick in black leather, the punk skewered with safety pins: all are images of power.

Since Diana Vreeland took over the editorship of Vogue in 1963, the magazine has specialised in exotic photoshoots, travelling to locations around the globe, posing models in haute couture alongside local people dressed in traditional clothes. Trends in scenography can now tell us as much about the cultural fantasies of our time as the designs that feature on the catwalk. In the early 1990s, fashion took a marked turn against the corporate look, diving into the maelstrom of heroin chic. Kate Moss led a trend for dangerously underweight models who were photographed leaning against walls covered in graffiti, crouched beside rubbish bins, sprawled across unmade beds in derelict rooms. It was a reminder that for those who abandon the world of careers and promotion, anarchy offers alternative modes of power. This is nowhere better demonstrated than by Vivienne Westwood, who has expanded her enterprise from the Kings Road shop that was an unofficial punk headquarters in the Worlds End of London, to become one of the major fashion houses of Europe.

A tendency to contrariness in fashion imaging generates subliminal incitements to change direction, in defiance of the logics of the political and economic world. While the effects of the global financial crisis continue to roll out across Europe and America, the major fashion houses set their 2012 advertising campaigns amidst the baroque extravagances of the belle époque and the decadent orientalist luxuries of the ancien régime. Dior has gone to Versailles, where a model strides through the Hall of Mirrors, a marbled hall hung with chandeliers whose reflection is multiplied in vast mirrors surrounded by gilded cherubs. Chanel conjures the figure of Marie Antoinette, posed on a gold brocade couch in a lace-flounced crinoline skirt with a circlet of pearls and tiny enamel flowers around her waist. For the house of Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli take over the queen's sleeping quarters to show a collection featuring pale fabrics embossed with silvered embroidery and jewel-encrusted shoes.

On one level this might be nostalgia for lost wealth, but on another it has a more dynamic influence, arising from the principle that dreams may cross the threshold of reality. Many of the leading figures in the realms of fashion are individuals who have climbed to the highest reaches of wealth and celebrity through persistent acts of imagination. Everything in fashion is at the level of suggestion, but this allows for a dynamic fluidity that leaks out into the real world. Suggestion thrives on ambiguity, and the great fashion houses love to deliver mixed messages. Moving on from the Valentino spread in the September 2012 issue of Vogue, we encounter under the badge of Louis Vuitton a phalanx of society ladies who seem to belong on the Orient Express of Agatha Christie's heyday. They wear patterned coats and enormous hats, and are attended by porters who manage their outsized cases. A few pages further, in a related feature by Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs, some of these figures seem to have come adrift on the journey. They are shown in close-up, lying in a field, their pale Pierrot faces dwarfed by the hats, looking up at the camera with hooded eyes as if they have forgotten what dream they are in.

ENGLISH DESIGNER VIVIENNE Westwood, whose personal transition from punk to quasi-royalty in the domain of fashion is a demonstration of the transformative potency of visual presence, specialises in finding collision points between fantasy and reality. She is also one of the most trenchant commentators on contemporary fashion, and speaks with a knowledge of its historical underpinnings. Fashion as we know it, she says, is a convergence of French couture and English tailoring.

Tailoring, with the jacket or coat as its central focus, aims to make the wearer look tall and straight; cutting techniques are based on a simple geometry, with a strong horizontal across the shoulders and long-line curves down the torso. In couture, the dress or gown has pride of place as the defining garment and provides great latitude for the designer's imagination, allowing a wide range of experiments with form and silhouette. Most of these work by exaggerating the sexuality of the feminine figure: enhancing the curves of bust and hip, slashed to reveal the leg, cut away at the back, or anchored beneath the armpits to reveal bare shoulders. Fabrics may be clinging, shining or transparent, and eye-catching decoration draws attention to particular parts of the body. These principles are adapted and modified for day wear and for more formal dresses, but the disposition towards sensuality, sexuality and exoticism is essential to the arts of couture.

The transposition of techniques of masculine tailoring to the feminine wardrobe multiplies the style options for women, and produces clothing designed for action and adventure as well as visual allure. It also opens up a field of androgynous play. In flicking through almost any of the fashion glossies, you encounter a range of prototypes: the showgirl in top hat and tails, the equestrienne in hunting jacket and boots, the tough kid in motorbike leathers, the frock-coated dandy. These gender experiments are in an entirely different spirit from the earnest business of putting on a jacket for work. Sexuality is to the fore, and so is a theatrical fascination with persona.

A fashion magazine is an anthology of different modes of female power, deriving from wealth, sexuality, social standing, personal charisma and cultural capital. The fashion world engages with the chemistry of relationships between these modes, and through its incessant mobility, explores the changing directions in which they can travel. The self-made diva may overtake the duchess in social standing, and the punk is always waiting round the corner to ambush the queen or, perhaps, to become her.

In the fashion world, there can never be enough queens. This is another of Vivienne Westwood's insights and her fascination with royalty has been evolving over the past four decades. In creations for her shop at 430 King's Road, unofficial punk headquarters in the mid 1970s, Westwood featured union jack prints superimposed with an image of the Queen with a safety pin through her lip, but during the 1980s, after the punk movement had dissolved into the ordinary life of the London streets, Westwood turned her attention more seriously to an exploration of regal regalia. She adopted the crown as her brand logo, and had all her buttons embossed with an orb. In 1993 the carpet makers Brinton commissioned her for an advertising campaign featuring Marie Antoinette figures in crinolines and crowns sculpted from thick carpet.

The return to the ancien régime in current designer advertising is in part an homage to Westwood, but in French couture, the figure of Marie Antoinette always hovers. As the nation's last queen, cut off in her prime, she is a perpetual revenant in the fashion houses of Paris. English fashion takes its lineage back a stage further, to Queen Elizabeth I. Westwood, ageing shamelessly with flame-coloured hair and an almost chalk-white face, looks a bit like her and acts accordingly. She is dictatorial, capricious, and undaunted in her quest to widen the adventures of her time. These are qualities the historical queen has in common with the punk: both live in a border zone where personal image brokers the balance of power between anarchy and regimental control. As queens go, Elizabeth I is at the dangerous end of the spectrum, where the real power is generated. The 2012 September issue of Vogue featured a portrait by photographer Irving Penn of Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth, in a Balenciaga gown complete with ruff and encrusted with pearls. She fronts the camera with a menacing eye. 'Off with their heads!' You can almost see her framing the command.

Whether or not Lewis Carroll was deliberately evoking the not-so-good Queen Bess in the figure of the axe-mad Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton makes highly effective play on the association in his 2011 film. Queens have a tendency to bring the film and fashion worlds into conjunction, and here both the red and the white queens are played by divas of the red carpet, suitably counterposed: Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway face off across a warped chessboard that defies geometry. Off screen they are, respectively, the bad and good girls of the fashion world. Bonham Carter, who likes to wear Westwood to awards ceremonies, almost invariably hits the worst-dressed list, while Hathaway is so much the darling of the couturiers that she appeared in gowns from nine of the major houses when she co-hosted the 2011 Oscars.

The mythology of queens, fed from the streams of fairy story as well as history, confronts us with the darker side of power, but also with its relationship to transformation, sometimes of the magical kind.

STEPPING BACK FROM these dream worlds, we might ask what relevance they could have to women of power in twenty-first century reality. The figure of the shape shifter queen may be compelling, but how could she serve as a role model for someone whose business is change management?

When it comes to offering advice on the image challenges of the Australian Prime Minister, a call for 'the real Julia' has caused enough problems already. But perhaps this also points towards the heart of the matter. One of the hurdles for any woman who sets a precedent in a leadership role is the sneaking suspicion that she is not the real thing, but positions of power necessarily involve role play. There is no getting away from it, and there are weaker and stronger approaches to fashioning the role. The fact so many women in key positions are still trapped in the codes of power dressing is a reflection of the degree to which modern democracies shackle those in leadership to a set of negatives. In politics, those who live and die by opinion polling cannot afford to offend or confuse. They must never appear eccentric, or be open to accusations of inconsistency.

To break out of the negative cycle involves projecting courage and a sense of sustained inner conviction, and being able to capture the imagination of the public with vision and inspiration. This is where there is something to be gained in revisiting the dramatis personae of female theatres of power. In Vivienne Westwood's opinion, it is all about presence, and she cites Thatcher as someone whose presence was effectively enhanced by the way she dressed. Presence is an enigmatic quality, but in public life it is about the capacity to generate a certain intensity in live engagement with an audience, to thrive on being the centre of attention. Thatcher adopted a persona and projected it with vividness and conviction, and her image was fashioned as part of the whole dynamic.

The trouble with Gillard's clothes, Germaine Greer said, is that they don't look as if they belong to her. How can those women who have followed Thatcher on the world stage expect to generate an effective presence if they persist in wearing clothes that belong to Margaret Thatcher, and that were designed to be on message for an intensely conservative politician of the 1980s? Presence is about being in the present, and a political leader should look as if their energies are drawn from the here and now.

Generational change is a factor that is due to come into play here. I got my first professional appointment as a lecturer in 1983, and celebrated by buying a pantsuit. At the time it was an exciting but acutely stressful transition in my life and looking back on it, I'm aware of how I was part of a wider social transition, as for the first time it became the norm for women in early adulthood to see their future in terms of career goals. We need to reflect on how recent this is, as a social and cultural transformation. The identity-shift for women is still in a phase of relative immaturity, but we need to look back as well as forward in order to find future directions.

Second-wave feminism took its impetus from an overblown critique of the status quo. Women were perceived to be essentially disempowered, and traditional forms of feminine control came under suspicion as being born of constraint, and having their basis in manipulative sexuality. As a consequence, the career woman of the 1980s who set out to be everything she could be was a figure cordoned off from deep and various traditions of female power. All those witches, queens, courtesans and divas were to be banished from our imaginative world. Banishing the jackets might help to prompt a more fundamental process of rethinking what women of power have been and may become.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.