In this thought-provoking book, British author Robb Young examines the wardrobe choices of First Ladies and women politicians from around the world. With a brief glance backward, he begins his detailed analysis in the 1980s and continues up to 2010. The book covers an ambitious range. He includes not only Madeleine Albright, with her statement jewelry, but also former Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto, who had to abandon French couture for a salwar kameez (a long tunic and pants combination) when she entered politics.
The term “power dressing” was popularized in the 1980s by John Malloy, who wrote influential books on how to dress for success. The big shouldered, cleaned lined, monochrome look of that era suited women who were entering politics and the business world. It got more complicated when those suits went out of style in the 1990s. In the new century, it became even harder to define a single “power look,” as softer feminine styles became acceptable in the workplace. As Young notes, more choice is not necessary a good thing when your task is to project a clear and confident image to a broad public.
Young offers a sympathetic look at Hillary Clinton, who is so often criticized for her fashion choices. As First Lady, Clinton stuck to an established style of skirt suits by day and Oscar de la Renta by night. However, when she ran for president she adopted the matched pant suit with a custom fit and upgraded fabrics. This is her uniform, similar in form and function to a man’s suit. He likes her choice. “All Clinton wants, as so many politicians do, is to find a look that will silence people. While that of course will never happen, perhaps—given only the subtlest of refreshing and updating—her signature trouser suits might come close.”(30)
When examining women leaders in North America and Western Europe, Young finds a lot of changes over the last thirty years. He charts the switch from the high end designer clothes worn by Nancy Reagan to the eclectic and sometimes inexpensive choices of Michelle Obama. However, I was most impressed—and depressed—by what has stayed the same. When American and European women first entered formal politics at the start of the twentieth century, they faced sharp criticism for being either too masculine looking or too feminine looking, too interested in fashion or too indifferent. It seems like today’s powerful women hear exactly the same things.