Too short, too tight, too low-cut, too relaxed, too feminine and sometimes even too sexual… For several years now, French female politicians’ outfits have been scrutinized, analyzed and dissected on social networks and sparked lively debates in the rest of the world. media at the slightest fashion faux pas. Not to mention the sexist or inappropriate cries of certain dominant men. And all means are good to destabilize your opponent! We remember, for example, the affair of the very expensive clothes of Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Rachida Dati, the apparent “bra” of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the white dress printed with blue flowers by Cécile Duflot who whistled at the national flag of the Assembly , faded gray jeans by Valérie Pécresse, oversized mini-dresses on the thighs by Fleur Pellerin or fluorescent pink Crocs by Roselyne Bachelot on the steps of the Élysée. Has fashion become the new obsession of the French political class? Across the Atlantic, Kamala Harris and Jill Biden, the vice president and first lady of the United States, have been very clear about avoiding any sterile debate: During their tenure, they will not answer questions from reporters about their toilets. . But why is the question of dress so common among women in power, while we rarely wonder about that of their male counterparts?
Fashion, a political weapon like any other
“The range of possibilities for politicians is much smaller,” explains Denis Bruna, chief curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts. The dark suit, the pale shirt, the heavy tie, the black lace-ups – oxfords or derbies – which form a quasi-uniform, unchanged since the 19th century, save them from extravagance and, consequently, from ridicule. “A sentiment shared by Sophie Lemahieu, fashion historian at the Ecole du Louvre and author of the book Dressing in Political. The clothes of women in power, 1936-2022”: “We often talk about the outfits of female politicians, sometimes we reduce them to their physique, unlike men. In addition to clothes, even a haircut can be interpreted. Any change leads to questions from the media or the public: why this transformation? Have his ideas changed? What message is she trying to convey now? Or: why is she trying to distract attention with her appearance? In an ultra-connected world where photos invade Instagram and where image often takes precedence over speech, fashion is more than ever a political weapon like any other.
Everything we wear reveals things about our personality
In the 17th and 18th centuries, kings at the courts of Europe ‘made’ fashions and people followed them. Clothing was then a foil, the mirror of the social condition. But the adoption of the democratic regime and the republican system imposed austerity, classicism and steadfastness. One motto: the voter in the viewfinder! “Clothes are our identity card,” notes fashion historian Florence Müller. It reveals and defines us every day. Everything we wear reveals things about our personality and how we want to define ourselves in relation to others. It is a silent introduction to discourse, a real point of view that we can read, often unconsciously, and that says a lot about our moral or political beliefs. †
The first questions about fashion in politics appeared in 1936. That year, Cécile Brunschvicg, Suzanne Lacore and Irène Joliot-Curie were appointed Secretaries of State, although they did not yet have the right to vote. “Then the question arose of how these three women should dress in this man’s world, analyzes Sophie Lemahieu. And there was especially the delicate case of the hat when it first occupied the benches of the conference room. Bareheaded or with a hat? Indeed, in the 1930s, it was agreed that a woman is ‘undressed’ if she does not have a headgear. And, unlike a man, she has to hold it when she enters a place. Eventually they get to expose their heads. A first victory for feminism! For the rest of the silhouette, this trio of quasi-ministers comply with the rules that apply in public spaces: wear the clothes of their gender, their age, their rank. The dress and suit, which reached below the knee or only exposed the ankle, were fashionable at a time when trousers were still largely reserved for men. It will have to wait until the 1980s before the latter is finally officially authorized on the legs of politicians. “We owe this stylistic progress to Michèle Alliot-Marie,” specifies Sophie Lemahieu.
In 1972, when she was an adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs, she presented herself in trousers to the National Assembly. The episode is well known: the ushers won’t let in this woman who, through her clothing, breaks with the traditional codes of her gender in an environment as formal as the conference room. “If it’s my pants that bother you, I’ll take them off ASAP,” she says, before finally being given the right to access her workplace. This event marks the beginning of the masculinization of the dressing room of female politicians who, in order to have more credit with the voters and their colleagues, will merge into the mass of these gentlemen who are present in the vast majority. In the eighties and nineties, for example, they took on the pantsuit and shortened their hair.
Nicolas Sarkozy with his bling allure and his glamorous and very fashionable women
The stylistic decipherment in the general information media – thus excluding fashion magazines – of the candidates for the presidency really started during the 2007 campaign. Fashion about political figures, it was not a worthy subject, explains Florence Müller. And then Nicolas Sarkozy went through it, with his bling allure and his glamorous and very fashionable women (Cécilia then Carla Bruni) who made a break with the hyperclassicism of Mmes de Gaulle, Giscard d’Estaing or Chirac. Only Claude Pompidou was very trendy, but she remains a parenthesis lost in the middle of an ocean of BCBG women with totally non-existent stylistic intentions.
As for Simone Veil, who today we can think of as very modern because she wore the Chanel suit a lot, let’s not forget that Gabrielle Chanel disappeared then. In the early 1970s, the Parisian house fell asleep. She continues to use Mademoiselle patterns, changes the fabrics a bit, but it’s always the same formula. Before the arrival of Karl Lagerfeld in 1983, it was an aging brand that dressed the bourgeois. However, if this is not a strong fashion act on the part of the minister, it is the beginning of the notion of power habit in politicians’ locker rooms. When Coco Chanel developed the suit in the 1950s, it was with the idea of offering a female equivalent to the male suit, a kind of counterpoint worthy of a woman in power.
Thanks to #MeToo, young female politicians no longer want to masculinize themselves to be credible
Abandon the male uniform, this master key worn to please the greatest number, finally confirming your true personality. In 2022, things no longer seem so utopian for Sophie Lemahieu. Thanks to #MeToo, the movement that liberated women’s voices in October 2017 about the gender-based and sexual violence they are victims of, young female politicians seem to have a little more facility to comment and criticize the way they are dressed. they maintain a dignified demeanor, they claim to be women and to have a body that belongs to them, they no longer want to become masculine to be credible and have their ideas heard, and it’s finally played out politically well, because we’re getting better at it recognize if they work this way.”
Also read. Chronicle “C’est la vie”: Women of Power
If the path to wisdom still seems littered with pitfalls, Florence Müller is also optimistic: “The day we have a female president, we can envision a big change, and maybe finally forget the democratic dress in favor of powerful clothes. If we connect with the female personalities of the galaxy, actresses or singers like Rihanna, Rosalia or Beyoncé, they use the weapon of fashion in a triumphant way.And we must not forget that fashion is a French industry that contributes to the good economic health of the country. Remember that it represents more in total sales than aviation and automotive. It is therefore essential to support it in the eyes of the world. If our handbags match our political ideas, it seems that the clothes do indeed get the vote.Ladies candidates, dare to develop your sense of hype!
“Dress up in politics. The Clothing of Women in Power, 1936 – 2022”, by Sophie Lemahieu, ed. Decorative Arts, 160 pages, 35 euros.