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Image and Political Communication: The Dress Code of Power in the Structure of Public Behavior

Брой 36 / Юли 2018 г.
Медии и обществени комуникации

Prof. DSc Lubomir Stoykov



The aim of the article is to present different case studies of the relationship between image and political communication, on the one hand, and political dress code, on the other. The article attempts to examine the dress code of power within the structure of public behavior, as well as to outline some basic norms and criteria in this regard. More specifically, the text focuses on the dress code of women politicians by comparing the image and dress styles of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. The author argues that the role of dress code in political communication continues to grow; that society and the electorate are becoming more and more sensitive to political dress code mistakes; that the evolution of the concept of political dress code is marked by modern dressing techniques, in which there is more challenge, extravagance and aesthetic innovation. All this logically leads to a more efficient construction of the public image of women leaders in politics and provides additional symbolic and semiotic resources which enrich their messages in political communication.


Key words: political communication, image, image-making, public behavior, style, clothing, dress code, fashion, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, politics, power


Political image is logically bound by public communication, which, along the process of sending and receiving, encoding and decoding messages, forms certain ideas, impressions and attitudes towards power representatives*. These attitudes of the audience, respectively, of the electorate, towards the politician in question can be positive, negative or neutral – and surely very nuanced, sensitive and often vague. It is important to emphasize that one of the goals of political communication is to form a convincing and credible image of the respective President, Prime Minister, Minister, MP or political leader, and that every component of this challenging and significant process of exchange of information can have a positive or negative effect on political image making.

There is a wide range of factors for successful political communication and, accordingly, for efficient political image making. These include the politicians’ verbal and nonverbal capabilities to express themselves adequately, in an understandable, accessible and downright manner. Being well informed and competent are the key qualities which define the creation and development of good image. But this is not enough; improvisation skills, impeccable instincts and the will to recognize one’s own mistakes are of great value for effective political communication. All communication content is “responsible” for the politicians’ normal perception: for their acceptance, for the understanding and gaining insight into their messages – from clarity of thought and speech, positive conduct and trustworthy behavior to successful dress style and overall empathy, i.e. true, not hypocritical and fake, experience of the feelings, passions, joys and anxieties of the voters – the ordinary people. In this respect, Prof. David Schulz rightly notes: “If you do not succeed in defining yourself for others, they will succeed in defining you.”. [1]
The outward appearance and clothing are among the most influential factors for the successful construction of the politicians’ image. The society and various audiences are becoming more sensitive to the messages that public figures involved in political activity send through their dress style; scandals and conflicts related to their inadequate appearance are becoming very common. In some cases, mass discontent and reasonable criticism arise from MPs’ and ministers’ overly expensive and luxurious clothes and accessories; in other cases, the negative reactions are provoked by elementary lack of taste leading to bunches of aesthetic errors, stylistic nonsense and kitschy dress style. As well, discontent may be triggered by extremely inappropriate clothing in particular situations: casual and ordinary clothes for ceremonial occasions, and unnecessarily formal and tacky style for routine meetings, everyday conversations or emergency and crisis situations and natural disasters.
What is the character of the dress code of power within the structure of public behavior? What are its standards and corresponding criteria? What are the specifics and peculiarities of the dress style of women in politics? Is the masculine (male) style of female leaders in political life still the norm? What are the messages of power-dress political communication of political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May?
1. The dress code of power
If we focus, for example, on the clothing and appearance of politicians, including MPs, it is inevitable and necessary to ask a few questions: do elected representatives dress appropriately? Is an MP’s negligent attire a sign of disrespect for Parliament? Is a more formal dress code obligatory for civil servants and officials working within the structures of the presidency, the council of ministers and different ministries, state agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations? Can officials afford a more irresponsible attitude to their public appearance, or should they give a personal example of style, culture and personable appearance? Is it permissible for all this to be regulated by certain sets of rules or guidelines?
In a number of parliaments around the world there are regulations concerning the behavior and clothing of MPs. In the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), for example, it is unacceptable for men to wear inappropriate clothing, such as sleeveless T-shirts, shorts, jeans, whereas women should avoid short tops that uncover the abdomen. The Danish Parliament does not have a strictly regulated dress code, as the institution has no authority to decide whether certain clothes are appropriate and practical for the purpose or not. It is precisely here that Muslim MPs are allowed to wear headscarves at work, and yet some politicians disagree with this, as they consider it to be a sign of gender-based oppression. And in the case of New Zealand, there is a special requirement to comply with the so-called “dress code”. In a special instruction, one can read the following: “Parliament’s buildings belong to all citizens of New Zealand. They are part of our national heritage and center of our democracy. Visitors are welcome, but must be dressed appropriately.” Here are some of the basic dress standards in the Parliament of New Zealand, according to
which clothes should be:
  • Clean and neat
  • Men must wear the jackets (neckties are optional)
  • Wearing shoes is a must
  • Wearing shorts is forbidden
  • Men cannot wear hats, unless religion forces them to do so
Inside the main parliamentary hall, one cannot take off their jacket, they can leave it in the cloakroom instead, etc. Regarding the essential features of the dress code for MPs’, Ms. Evgeniya Zhivkova, a famous designer and a former MP herself, also believes that clothing in the National Assembly should be stylish and personable. In her opinion, there has been some progress in this regard – more and more MPs choose to dress in accordance with fashion trends and etiquette. It is curious that she thinks that women MPs can afford greater freedom and openness than their male colleagues. The designer and MP is more tolerant of the absence of a tie from the man’s wardrobe, especially during the summer heat, as the parliament building is very warm and air conditioning does not work properly; but she thinks the blazer-and-trousers suit set is a must.
The need of a dress code for our political men and women is beyond doubt; what needs to be discussed is the particular type of such a code. To what extent can it be casual, informal, quotidian? Can anyone break it whenever they wish so? Is not the style of dressing yet another sign of respect and affiliation to the values of a sacred institution, such as what the parliament should be in any democratic state? The right to choice of outward appearance is one of the sacred civil rights of democracy – a right tailored to the individual’s culture, aesthetic preferences and sense of practicality, convenience and the clothes’ symbolic value. Along with that, however, it is also a specific kind of responsibility linked with the political and social mission of MPs and civil servants who have to emanate trust, culture and intelligence.
Among political styles that specialists discuss very often are the ways of constructing the presidential couple’s outward appearance. The most important thing for the president and the first lady’s dress is to be adequate: in full accordance with protocol, the situation, the occasion, the meeting, on the one hand, and capable of inspiring trust and transmitting messages of security and good taste, on the other. Here, little things lead to substantial effects; in other words, every detail matters: the shoes, watch, glasses, purse, jewelry, etc. In terms of design, they should be valuable and balanced. However, if there is hesitation between the conservative and the extravagant, one should prefer the former. In this regard, being overly excessive is inappropriate: the less jewelry, fewer bracelets, rings and so on, the better. Assuming that accessories play the role of the “adjective,” and the garment – of the “noun” in one’s appearance, one can apply Hemingway’s principle that the adjective is death for the noun.
For example, in the dress of men politicians, the tie plays a big role, accordingly, its color and pattern, as well as whether it is plain or with pictures and prints. One would not always accept positively and unambiguously a president who wears a tie printed with patterns depicting elephants, butterflies, bubbles, umbrellas or pop-art symbols – although I can personally accept any idea. Whether non-standard accessories are aesthetically relevant and communicate the exact messages, as in the case of Madeline Albright’s brooches, is a different question. Donald Trump’s red tie is among the most commented attributes of his appearance – perhaps right after his backcombed and “concreted” haircut. Every beginner stylist would immediately notice the imperfections: it is too long (according to fashion standards it should reach the belt), narrow and with a very small, somewhat clumsy knot that some consider a half Windsor.
But the question arises as to whether Trump does not know how to dress properly and what others expect, or whether this is his deliberate visual and stylistic tactics. The latter case is much more likely – let us not forget that while he can afford the services of the best stylists and image makers, in pure media terms Donald Trump is an image maker of his own self and has often bet on hyperbole and aesthetic provocation. Perhaps he has done and does all this to make himself distinguishable, notable, memorable and different... It is no coincidence that his biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: “As grotesque as it may look, Trump’s carefully arranged hairstyle makes him instantly recognizable.” [2] With their dress style, men politicians, especially presidents in modern and contemporary US history, prove the importance of the combination of moderateness and value as a general principle, on the one hand, and of individual taste and personal culture, on the other. Good looking in this regard are John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – at least for the past five to six decades.
Among America’s first ladies, lasting traces have been left by icons of visual culture and style such as Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan (to a certain extent), Michelle Obama and recently – Melania Trump. The wife of the current US president has perfect outward appearance and this can hardly be denied even by Donald Trump’s harshest opponents. She relies on clean silhouettes with very well measured feminine romance and romantic femininity. She does achieve the glare of chic with the combination of personal charisma and individual beauty, a flawless figure and masterful manners. On the other hand, there is the choice of designers. Lately, she has shown preference for Ralph Lauren, Harve Pierre, Roksanda Ilinčić and others, including Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana. Designers with whom she works say they usually face no difficulties, as she is very well aware of what she wants and how she wants to look like. In addition to her aesthetic image, a serious plus is her appearance’s evolution: from the emphasis on sex-appeal in the past to a more moderate and reserved appearance now – a new form of elegance of the highest class, in harmony with her current status. [3]
It is axiomatically important to emphasize that political dress (both in the case of men and women, despite the inevitable differentiations) implies restraint, refinement, compliance with protocol, and something very important: taking into account the cultural, ethnic and communicative semiotic characteristics of those in power who dress one way or another. When they cannot make the right choices, it is advisable to look for counselors and image makers rather than to parrot that doing their job is more important than trying to look good. As regards the doing of their job, this is more than obvious: it is for this reason that the people and the society have empowered them – to work professionally, with competence and honesty, with dedication to the well-being of the state and society.
2. The dress code of women politicians: general characteristics
The strong presence of women in politics and the increasingly frequent occupation of leadership positions and political posts by women put on trial and inevitably require a revision of the traditions and norms regarding the style of their public behavior and the way of shaping their appearance. Every female political leader leaves a mark of her own on philosophy and aesthetics, the sociology and sociolinguistics of public image and political communication. Many women leaders, otherwise very different, have contributed in this regard and have marked the new visual transformations of the female style in public space. These include Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Theresa May, and many more. In the analysis of their fashion semiotics and semiotic fashion, the purposeful search of resemblance to the style of male politicians is undoubtedly a particularly important moment. “Power dress” and “power dressing” are two of the most commonly used terms for the political dress style of women leaders which designate clothing while in power, clothing emanating power, clothing and clothes symbolizing female power, will, decisiveness and determination in politics. But is this phenomenon closely related to the realization of women within political structures, or is it a more general trend showing women’s effective mimicry aimed at achieving equal chances for professional realization and business affirmation? In his remarkable work “Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion” Robb Young not only explains the evolution of the term “power dressing”, but also analyzes its dynamics, upgrade stages and metamorphoses. According to him, whereas in the 1980s the concept was heavily limited to the adaptation of male clothing to the outward appearance of women involved in politics, its meaning today has changed a lot, has expanded and has been upgraded along the line of much greater freedom in the fashion style of women political leaders. [4]
Along female emancipation’s interesting, amusing, but often dramatic path, many of the battles for civil and professional rights are won on the clothing front. Short hairstyles, male clothes and accessories, such as trousers, jackets, neckties, etc. are a way for women seeking equal opportunities to reach the opposite sex, to catch up with them and to get equal chances for professional realization. Over the decades, women have reached the idea of refusing to emphasize the female body. Even to the fully naked eye it is clear that men’s business suits unify the bodies, and hence women are willing to accept this new way of life just in order to catch up with the male half in their chances for professional success.
Looking at women’s identification through clothing in the era of their colossal penetration into the territories of typically “male” occupations, Fred Davis notes the trade-offs in terms of clothing aimed at erasing the strong differences with regard to men’s appearance. However, there arise new symptoms of uncertainty of identity related to the rejection of the principles of femininity through clothing. According to him, in theory it is not necessary for women to dress like men, as, for example, the unisex style for the surgeon’s profession is sufficient to break the stereotype that “being male” is equal to “career, authority, success.” But only in theory; in practice and in organizational life, men continue to dominate with their conventional clothing, and women have nothing left but to imitate them in order to achieve the dream of professional equality: “Because they now dress more like their male counterparts, women are in fact men’s equal when it comes to such valued on-the-job attributes as ambition, determination, skill mastery, levelheadedness, etc. A salient part of this message is the tacit disavowal of the fickleness and capriciousness often associated with fashion, which, in turn, is seen as falling so exclusively to women. The other horn of the dress-for-success dilemma constrains women to switch to Western man’s restricted dress code as they abandon in large part their elaborated dress code, which they have lived with for centuries and many, including prominent feminists, claim to envoy. This entails sacrificing the many possibilities for symbolic elaboration, innovation, and improvisation that women’s dress repertoire presently includes and men’s does not. On purely aesthetic grounds, then, there is considerable resistance to doing so. Women’s reluctance in this connection probably also accounts for what many of them regard as the ludicrous prescriptiveness of the dress-for-success ensemble, i.e. the many “musts”, “shoulds,” and “nevers” that punctuate the advice of career dress advisors.”. [6]
A closer look at the public image and dress style of such emblematic women political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May will undoubtedly show the evolution and differentiation of the so-called “power dressing”. The communicative aspects of their appearance and fashion choices are particularly important because they can be understood as important principles and methods of influence in the sphere of political communication, including in non-verbal ways. Clarifying the semiotics of political fashion is of great value to analyzing the successes and failures of political communication.
3. The image and style of Margaret Thatcher
When Margaret Thatcher became the first UK Prime Minister, hardly anyone assumed that she would be called an icon of political style and political communication years later and that her appearance would be an example and a role model for many women leaders in politics. Why and how did the Iron Lady manage to build and impose the concept of successful clothing in the political sphere? What were the characteristics of her clothes and accessories? How can one explain the power of her style and the style of her power?
Margaret Thatcher herself clearly realized the role and importance of appropriate and well-maintained outward appearance in her public activities. And not only this; as a very young girl, she had an accurate attitude towards fashion and fashion design. One of the merits for building up her adequate fashion culture belongs to her mother, who regularly informed her about the trends of the British Vogue and personally took care of Margaret’s toys, sewing many of them herself. Also, she successfully managed to convey to her daughter the importance of quality fabrics for the production of fine clothing and made no compromises in this respect. Since their family budget was modest, Margaret’s mother used to buy good materials at affordable prices at various kinds of sales. Margaret Thatcher’s deep respect for fashion is confirmed by a number of facts, such as Marks and Spencer being her favorite fashion company, and her special preference for Aquascutum (London) – one of the oldest fashion houses for women’s, men’s and children’s clothing in the UK. In her memoirs, she often shares her fashion views, principles and judgments in aesthetic as well as in cultural and political terms. In her Path to Power, characterizing UK’s cultural and domestic revival in the postwar years, especially in the 1950s, the Iron Lady writes: “Wages and salaries started to rise. Bananas, grapes and fruits I had never heard of suddenly reappeared in the shops. After the drabness of utility clothing, fashion recovered its confidence and colour with Dior’s wide skirts, strapless evening dresses, and Ascot hats.” [7]
Almost at the very beginning of her political career, she understands that the correct approach to her dress code is set in the combination of strict and official, on the one hand, and original and feminine, on the other. Support for this philosophy of hers Margaret Thatcher received from her colleague Donald Kaberry, whose fashion advice to wear “something beautiful, but not blatant” at public appearances she would always remember. So in one of her early appearances to the public and the electorate she preferred to wear a black robe mantle edged in brown with a black dress and a small black hat. The initial formation of her dress style was also influenced by Lady Williams, the wife of Sir Herbert Williams, MP, who advised Margaret to choose “serious,” i.e. formal, clothes for her election campaign. For this purpose, the Iron Lady ordered a black tailor-made suit and combined it with a hat from Oxford Street’s Bourne and Hollingsworth in London and even decorated it, for greater confidence, with “black-and white-ribbon” and “a bit of blue in the knot.” [8]
Still, quite logically she gives preference to the style directly related to her political mission: for her, the essential thing is to dress properly so as to leave the “right impression” in terms of political preferences, interests and principles. In this sense, clothes that show dignity, moderateness, some conservatism and, along with that, influence, domination and power, would be the most appropriate ones. Analysts of Thatcher’s outward appearance have discovered components typical of knight armor, comparing her clothes to metal plates and her hairstyle to a helmet. And what was the weapon and what kind of sword did the Iron Lady carry? In this respect, the allegory is decisive: her handbag served as an offensive weapon, a tool for dealing with her opponents without mercy – especially when it comes to her favorite black Asprey. These assessments go so far as to turn the power of her handbag into a symbol of her management style so that the phrase “to handbag,” i.e. hit with a bag, became synonymous to “throw away” and “discharge/dismiss”. [9]
The most common combination in Margaret Thatcher’s clothing is the one of a jacket with a skirt or dress – the so-called tailleurs, which represent a visual symbol of female emancipation in the 20th century. The Iron Lady was particularly demanding for the visible and emphatic shaping of her shoulders by means of more decisive jacket cuts strengthening the sense of supremacy, power, confidence, and even some aggressiveness. This was a mandatory part of the requirements and instructions she would give to the designers involved in the making of her clothes. It should be noted, however, that, still, the toughness of her appearance was softened and reduced by the use of scarves, handkerchiefs, fichus, brooches, pearl necklaces and pendants. But she would always arrange these in minimalistic ways in order to avoid any hints at verbosity or eclecticism of appearance.
One particularly important problem of political dress style is the adequate answer to the question of who dresses the relevant politicians. Thatcher solved this problem by not changing clothing brands and makes frequently. She was faithful to the British fashion house Aquascutum (London) mentioned above. In this respect, the Iron Lady applied and defended two very important principles of the dress code for political leaders: first of all, they should wear local production, in this case the production of a British fashion house, and thus popularize the works and achievements of their native fashion industry, textile and design; secondly, they should link their style with the style of the respective fashion house, which in turn supports, refines and develops the dress of the respective politician. It was precisely Margaret King, Aquascutum’s director, who became a longtime fashion adviser to Margaret Thatcher. She was also the one who prepared Thatcher’s wardrobe for her five-day visit to the Soviet Union, which began on 28 March 1987. The British Prime Minister definitely wanted to leave a very strong impression with her appearance while in the USSR. She herself acknowledged that choosing the right outfits for this strategic visit had been her biggest fashion challenge. A particularly impressive dress was Margaret Thatcher’s cashmere coat with a fur collar and a fox fur hat designed by the royal milliner Phillip Somerville in the spirit of Russian winter fashion tradition, inevitably including fur coats, hats and collars. Thatcher did manage to surprise her Russian hosts: both the Soviet government delegation as well as the ordinary people she met in the streets and in the Russian Orthodox monastery in Zagorsk. The fashion consultant had planned the individual sets containing not only the clothes, but also the accessories, which did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from changing the combinations during the visit according to her current mood and the situation without making any mistakes or faults.
Later on, in her memoirs the Iron Lady would describe her journey as “the most fascinating and most important of my visits abroad” at a time prior to the great historical changes and the deep shifts within communist system’s layers. Margaret King remembers that hours before returning to London, Thatcher called her to share her excitement with her “sensational” Soviet Union outfit. Even according to her political opponents, her well-thought fashion strategy had an excellent impact on both the image of the British PM as well as UK’s reputation. [10]
Margaret Thatcher was perfectly well aware of the communicative role of fashion and of the opportunity she had as PM to send the relevant messages at intergovernmental meetings and high-level state visits by means of clothing, appearance and non-verbal behavior – in general, by using body language. Her aesthetic reflex was not limited to selecting the type of clothing, its cut and silhouette, but also included the element of color. As a rule, color is one of the main aspects of clothing, and it is logical that it should be adapted to the individuality of the person in question as well as to a number of cultural, aesthetic, psychological, seasonal and protocol requirements and conditions. Thatcher revealed her accurate sense in this regard many times by choosing dress colors adapted to the relevant values, attitudes and beliefs. Why, for example, did she wear a green suit during her three-day official visit to Poland which began on 2 November 1988? We find the answer in her memoirs, where she notes that when she was preparing for the upcoming visit, she consulted a designer of Polish origin who shared with her that green was a symbol of hope in Poland, and it was precisely for this reason that Thatcher wore green. [11] So too other high-ranking British officials have applied this method and style as a sign of respect for the traditions and customs of the countries of their official visits. When accompanying Prince Charles during his visit to Japan in 1986, Princess Diana’s clothes were of the colors of the Japanese national flag. [12]
Margaret Thatcher’s fashion choice was a special and important factor in the buildup of her convincing reputation. Along the line of her dress strategy, she achieved an unquestionable success in the field of political communication and visual culture, which made her a symbol and an idol of a successful woman political leader. Without underestimating her competence, consistency, energy and, last but not least, her strong political and social instinct, we must give due credit to her visual style and her merit for the crystallization of the cultural, fashion and political phenomenon of “power dress” and “power dressing” in their basic classical parameters. Whether and how this style evolved and changed decades after the Iron Lady’s rule one can find out how by focusing on the dress style and visual culture of another remarkable female leader: Theresa May.
4. The image and style of Theresa May
Theresa May, the second female (after Margaret Thatcher) prime minister of the UK, “writes” the second volume of the series titled “Power dressing.” The media, journalists and the public as a whole have already become used to her clothing extravagance, which, however, does not stop them from loudly commenting on yet another fashion challenge in her outlook. It is not by chance that the British PM’s image and style is subject to such great attention, discussions and public evaluations that are far from being always nice and friendly. It is quite reasonable to reach a conflict between this sensational political style, on the one hand, and the widespread idea of decency, balance and normalness of appearance of the people of power – a mass notion where decency, balance and formality is the most important aspect. In the language of fashion, this means following classic patterns and silhouettes, and moderateness in terms of volume, lengths, colors, applications, decorations and additions. Does Theresa May’s dress code fit into such a traditional (if not outdated and worn-out) notion? It certainly does not, or at least not entirely. What is the most obvious thing in the costumes and dresses worn by Theresa May at her public appearances? How does her appearance provoke the public’s interest and magnetize everyone’s attention? Is her clothing style that eccentric so as to be remembered for a long time? And is this not precisely the purpose of the British PM? In this case, we do not assume that Teresa May – a woman of great intelligence, erudition, very well trained and experienced – would choose such dress style only to get noticed and impress others with a spectacular look. Yes, it is true that she is courageous in terms of the choice of colors (red, yellow, blue, pink, as well as overly bright tones), patterns and decoration of clothing fabrics (prints, patchwork, eclectic shapes and motives, etc.), as well with regard to more radical fashion components such as shorter skirts and lower necklines. The world of her shoes is even more colorful, very bright and unusual. The variety of their height is more than evident: from higher to moderate heels to lower slipper-types. Regardless of type of Mrs. May’s shoes – very often sharp-point, made of crocodile leather, decorated with buckles and stones, kiss-printed, with leopard or zebra patterns – they are noticeable from a distance and act as an aesthetic counterpoint to the more formal suit. In other words, her shoes have refreshing, variegating and sometimes even cheerful effects.
The media monitor, comment, and analyze every fashion appearance of the British PM – with the Telegraph being especially strict in this respect. In recent years, the eyes of fashion editors have not omitted the most emblematic examples of originality, eccentricity and diversity in Theresa May’s outlook. Which are the more important ones? These would be the orange jacket coat with bright prints she wore at a cabinet meeting in January 2013; the red dress, combined with a short jacket, a pearl necklace and kiss-printed low shoes worn in July 2015 on Budget Day; her red dress above the knee combined with a hat in the same color during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping in London in October 2015; as well, Amanda Wakeley’s mantle (arranged in contrasting yellow in the lower section) which she wore when she first entered 10 Downing Street in London in her new role as PM in July 2016. There are also other examples of Mrs. May’s being unusual and attractive, including when she visited Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a red coat and patent leather boots over her knee.
But what are the British PM’s motives to pursue an image of a politician dressing in an extravagant and even provocative manner? Does Theresa May have a specific fashion strategy that is tied to political communication and what is it? Yes, there certainly is such an intention or strategy – a political, cultural and aesthetic one – but, before anything, one should respect the aspirations of this woman leader to follow her wishes, preferences, tastes and attitudes regarding to her own identity. At a political conference dedicated to women, their rights, responsibilities and issues, Theresa May said: “I am a woman and I like clothes. I like shoes and I like clothes. I think one of the challenges for women in politics and in business and working life is actually to be ourselves. You know what, you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes.”. [13] Such a statement can have various meanings, but it is beyond doubt that its core reflects the new understanding of the woman politician and of her political dress style – the so-called “power dress” and “power dressing” – an understanding that makes a clear difference between the ways in which one shapes men’s and women’s outward appearance in the political sphere.
Theresa May has been compared several times to the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, including in terms of dress style. However, the reasons for such comparisons are short-lived. They mostly concern the early stages of Mrs. May’s career, when her style was sustained in the spirit of the conservative chic so well created, promoted and preserved by Thatcher. A formal pretext for this was given by the blue tailleur (the jacket-skirt combination) that Theresa May wore in Maidenhead – her constituency where she became a conservative MP on the election night of 1997. Theresa herself does not deny that she has been influenced by the Iron Lady’s style. They really look alike with regard to the fact that they value and use clothing as a message conveyor during their public appearances. As well, they both pay great attention to the quality of fabrics, the clear silhouette and minimalism and to being faithful to certain designers and brands, mostly British. Among Theresa May’s favorite fashion designers are Amanda Wakeley, Vivienе Westwood, Roland Mouret, as well as younger and lesser-known fashion artists such as Daniel Blake and others. [14]
In order to dress in a certain way, whether it be more unusual and attractive, one is motivated both by the desire to get a certain emotional satisfaction and delight, as well as by the desire to achieve a specific communication goal. Like Margaret Thatcher and other women political leaders, Theresa May also looks at clothing and accessories as symbols and signs. In a literal and in a metaphorical sense, clothes are texts and images that are read and understood, perceived and decoded: on the one hand, when a piece of clothing is a poster and placard in the literal sense (for example, the black “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt that Theresa wore in 2006); and on the other hand, when the chosen color seeks to publicly respect tradition and unity or the belief in political success (like her fashion decision to wear a red suit and scarf for her first official meeting with US President Donald Trump on 27 January 2017 as well as on the night of the early elections on 9 June 2017). It is a curious fact that at her first meeting with the US President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the Iron Lady was also dressed in red. [15] It is reasonable to think that such an act by Theresa May thirty-three years later and in similar circumstances would be interpreted as an expression of faithfulness and consistency of the traditionally strong British-American relations as well – and as a sign of emotion and sentiment, for which there is a place in political communication, albeit a modest one.
Whether because of sentimentality or superstition, Theresa May is very attached to some of her clothes and wears them repeatedly on important occasions. She considers this “lucky” outfit and believes that it brings her success. A good example in this regard is the plaid suit (jacket and trousers) created by her favorite designer Vivian Westwood. She wore it for the first time at the Tory Conference in 2013, and later dressed it several times, including on 17 January 2017, when he gave her key Lancaster speech on the UK’s exit from the European Union. The issue of repeated use of the same clothes in political communication and public appearances has different aspects. Once, Margaret Thatcher was accused of wearing the same clothes on television or at important international meetings, and it was for this reason that her associates decided to open and keep a special “fashion” journal of PM in order to prevent such gaffes in the future. However, one should not oppose the “recycling” or the reuse of the same clothes by politicians, as it is a sign of modesty, of less lavishness and even concern for the environment. Often, modern politicians have been criticized for addiction to luxury and display, and for a demonstration of an affluent way of life – including for wearing overly expensive clothes, accessories and so on. Theresa May has not been spared in this regard as well. There was media outrage, for instance, when it became known that her leather trousers cost 1,000 euros. However, especially in her case, the question remains controversial, as for her it is still an affordable price (as publicly revealed by herself, her own salary is 142,000 euros). [16] However, one should definitely not neglect and ignore by the social aspect of this situation, as well as the fact that political leaders nevertheless must provide examples to follow.
Theresa May is not surprised, nor too overwhelmed by countless reflections, judgments, and verdicts regarding her appearance. She does not pretend she is not interested in fashion, or that this interest is temporary, superficial and ephemeral. We can trust her when she shares the following with the Vogue: “Throughout my political career, people have commented on what I wear. That’s just something that happens, and you accept that. But it doesn’t stop me from going out and enjoying fashion. And I also think it’s important to be able to show that a woman can do a job like this and still be interested in clothes” [17]
By demonstrating freedom and openness in her dressing style, Theresa May makes people gradually reevaluate their stereotypes in terms of political visual culture and the attire of the people in power. However, this is not quick and easy, as the stereotype of the political style is deeply embedded in mass consciousness as an immutable set of external and formal features of the dress style of power representatives. With her unusual approach to her appearance and her clothes and shoes, Theresa May demonstrates a rather radical image change and shows a new, completely different view of the role of women leaders in political communication.
* * *
The analysis and interpretation of the image and style in political communication is indicative of the growing influence of body language, in particular of clothing, as well as of the qualitative changes in political consciousness, political culture and political behavior in the context of publicity. In fine, several essential conclusions can be outlined:
  • The role of dress code in political communication continues to grow and to exert an increasing influence on the way in which the electorate, mass media and the public perceive and evaluate people in power. Dress styles affect the political image directly, and in this regard one should observe the requirements for moderateness, functionality, adequacy, which ultimately guarantee confidence and efficiency in political communication.
  • The ignorance or the inappropriate estimation of the dress code’s significance increases the risks of distortion of political image as a result of the acute social, cultural and aesthetic sensitivity of the public and the media regarding gaffes and mistakes in the dress style of politicians. There is growing public discontent against and rejection of both weaknesses and inadequacies, such as tasteless and inappropriate clothing, wearing overly luxurious garments, demonstration and display of higher standards, vulgarity of outward appearance, etc., as well as of mistakes and absurdities in political dress style related to gross protocol violations, disrespect of values, beliefs and traditions.
  • In recent years, the general conception of the dress code of power has deeply changed. The classical notion of “power dress” and “power dressing,” especially regarding the public practices of women leaders in politics, has been re-evaluated. Through their fashion strategies, state leaders such as Margaret Thatcher (in the past) and Theresa May (nowadays) show character and domination. And if in the times of the Iron Lady this strategy adhered to the skillful interpretation of male dress style, the so-called “masculine style” with nuances of measured femininity, the phenomenon of “power dress” in its dimensions today (especially under the influence of celebrities such as Theresa May) takes on new forms as a result the application of modern techniques, loaded with more challenge, extravagance and aesthetic innovation. These forms and techniques contribute to the more effective design of the public image of women leaders in politics and provide additional symbolic and semiotic resource to enrich the messages in political communication.
Report by Prof. D. Sc. Lubomir Stoykov on the topic of "Image and Political Communication: The Dress Code of Power in the Structure of Public Behavior". The report was presented at the international scientific conference "Media Environment, Public and Strategic Communication", University of National and World Economy. Sofia, 20 - 21 November 2017.
First publication of the report: Stoykov, Lubomir. Image and Political Communication: The Dress Code of Power in the Structure of Public Behavior. In the book "Media environment, public and strategic communication”. Publishing complex - UNWE. Sofia, 2018, pp. 190-206.
[1] Shultz, David. Politainment: The Ten Rules of Contemporary Politics: A Citizens` Guide to Understanding Campaigns and Elections. Amazon.com, 2012, p. 48.
[2] D’Antonio, Michael. Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success  [Доналд Тръмп: искам всичко]. Millennium. Sofia, 2016, p. 295. [In Bulgarian].
[3] Stoykov Lubomir. Dissection of political fashion. An interview with Biliana Zaprianova [Дисекция на политическата мода. Едно интервю на Биляна Запрянова] In: “Esquire", 24/05/2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: http://www.esquire.bg/disektsia-na-politicheskata-moda-s-profesor-lyubomir-stoykov/ [In Bulgarian].
[4] Young, Robb. Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, 2011, рр. 8-9.
[5] See Stoykov, Lubomir. Theoretical problems of fashion [Теоретични проблеми на модата]. National Academy of Arts. Sofia, 2016, pp. 224-225. [In Bulgarian].
[6] Davis, Frеd. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. The University of Chicago Press.Chicago, London, 1992, р. 53.
[7] Thatcher, Margaret. The Path to Power [Пътят към властта] Third book. “Sun". Sofia, 1996, p. 94. [In Bulgarian].
[8] Ibid., p. 87-88.
[9] Alexander, Hilary. The woman who pioneered power-dressing. In: “The Telegraph”, 16 April 2008 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG3364840/The-woman-who-pioneered-power-dressing.html
[10] See Cronin, Emily. Revealed: the meticulous planning that went into Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Moscow wardrobe. In: Telegraph, 10 October 2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/meticulous-planning-went-margaret-thatchers-1987-moscow-tour/ ; Conway, D. Margaret Thatcher, Dress and the Politics of Fashion. In: The International Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World. Routledge, London, 2016, pp. 161-185.
[11] Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. [Годините на Даунинг стрийт] Second part. “Sun”. Sofia, 1995, p.442. [In Bulgarian]
[12] Stoykov, Lubomir. World Fashion Icons. [Световни модни икони] Second edition. “Alma Communication”. Sofia, 2017, p. 101 [In Bulgarian].
[13] Löwe, Philipp. Stilikone Theresa May. Ziemlich wild für eine Konservative. In: “Der Spiegel”, 12.07.2016 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from:  http://www.spiegel.de/stil/theresa-may-britische-premierministerin-ist-eine-stilikone-a-1102461.html
[14] See Wood, Gaby. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Leading Britain Post-Brexit. In: “Vogue”, March 20, 2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: https://www.vogue.com/article/british-prime-minister-theresa-may-interview-brexit-political-views ; Dunn, Laura Emily. Theresa May A-Z: A is for Amanda Wakeley. In: Political Style, 01.05.2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: http://politicsandstyle.blogspot.bg/2017/05/theresa-may-z-is-for-amanda-wakeley.html  
[15] Sharkey, Lauren. Theresa May wore *that* controversial red suit on election night. In: Yahoo Style UK, 9 June 2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: https://uk.style.yahoo.com/theresa-may-wore-controversial-red-suit-election-night-081948569.html
[16] Wood, Gaby. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Leading Britain Post-Brexit. In: “Vogue”, March 20, 2017 [accessed 07.01.2018]. Available from: https://www.vogue.com/article/british-prime-minister-theresa-may-interview-brexit-political-views
[17] Again there.
D’Antonio, Michael. Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success [Доналд Тръмп: искам всичко]. Millennium. Sofia, 2016, p. 295. [In Bulgarian].
Stoykov, Lubomir. Dissection of political fashion. An interview with Biliana Zaprianova. (Дисекция на политическата мода. Едно интервю на Биляна Запрянова) In: “Esquire", 24/05/2017. Available from: http://www.esquire.bg/disektsia-na-politicheskata-moda-s-profesor-lyubomir-stoykov/  [accessed 07.01.2018].
Stoykov, Lubomir. World Fashion Icons. (Световни модни икони) Second edition. “Alma Communication”. Sofia, 2017.
Stoykov, Lubomir. Theoretical issues of fashion. (Теоретични проблеми на модата) New Edition. National Academy of Arts. Sofia, 2016.
Stoykov, Lubomir. Public Relations Management. (Управление на връзките с обществеността) Second edition. “Alma Communication”. Sofia, 2016.
Thatcher, Margaret. Years of Downing Street. (Годините на Даунинг стрийт) Second part. “Sun”. Sofia, 1995.
Thatcher, Margaret. The Way to Power. (Пътят към властта) Third book. “Sun”. Sofia, 1996.
Alexander, Hilary. The woman who pioneered power-dressing. In: “The Telegraph”, 16 april 2008. Available from: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG3364840/The-woman-who-pioneered-power-dressing.html [07.01.2018].
Conway, D. Margaret Thatcher, Dress and the Politics of Fashion. In: The International Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World. Routledge, London, 2016.
Cronin, Emily. Revealed: the meticulous planning that went into Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Moscow wardrobe. In: “The Telegraph”, 10 October 2017. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/meticulous-planning-went-margaret-thatchers-1987-moscow-tour/ [07.01.2018].
Davis, Frеd. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. The University of Chicago Press.Chicago, London, 1992.
Dunn, Laura Emily. Theresa May A-Z: A is for Amanda Wakeley. In: “Political Style”, 01.05.2017. Available from: http://politicsandstyle.blogspot.bg/2017/05/theresa-may-z-is-for-amanda-wakeley.html [07.01.2018].
Holt, Bethan. Theresa May rewears her lucky Vivienne Westwood suit to deliver key Brexit speech. In: “The Telegraph”, 17 January 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/theresa-may-rewears-lucky-vivienne-westwood-suit-deliver-key/ Available from: [07.01.2018].
Leaper, Caroline. Decoding the ‘smart casual’ dress code of Theresa May’s Chequers barbecue. In: “The Telegraph”, 19 August 2017. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/style/smart-casual-dress-code-really-means/ [07.01.2018].
Löwe, Philipp. Stilikone Theresa May. Ziemlich wild für eine Konservative. In: “Der Spiegel”, 12.07.2016. Available from:  http://www.spiegel.de/stil/theresa-may-britische-premierministerin-ist-eine-stilikone-a-1102461.html [07.01.2018].
Sharkey, Lauren. Theresa May wore *that* controversial red suit on election night. In: “Yahoo Style UK”, 9 June 2017. Available from: https://uk.style.yahoo.com/theresa-may-wore-controversial-red-suit-election-night-081948569.html [07.01.2018].
Shultz, David. Politainment: The Ten Rules of Contemporary Politics: A Citizens’ Guide to Understanding Campaigns and Elections. Amazon.com, 2012.
Theresa May dons a jumpsuit for the Pride of Britain awards. In: “The Telegraph”, 31 Oct 2017. Available from:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/theresa-may-style-fashion/ [07.01.2018].
Wasilak, Sarah. British Prime Minster Theresa May Has a Style Mantra for All Power Women. In: “Popsugar”, September 24, 2017. Available from:  https://www.popsugar.com/fashion/British-Prime-Minister-Theresa-May-Style-41965525 [07.01.2018].
Wood, Gaby. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Leading Britain Post-Brexit. In: Vogue”, March 20, 2017. Available from: https://www.vogue.com/article/british-prime-minister-theresa-may-interview-brexit-political-views [07.01.2018].
Young, Robb. Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, 2011.

Suggested Bibliographic Citation:

Stoykov, Lubomir. Image and Political Communication: The Dress Code of Power in the Structure of Public Behavior. // Media and social communications. University of National and World Economy / Alma communication, №36, July 2018. Available from: http://www.media-journal.info/?p=item&aid=363


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