As we may be about to get our third female Prime Minister in the UK (Margaret Thatcher – first and Theresa May – second) I wanted to explore how a female Prime Minister in the UK should dress.
There’s no doubt about it, when it comes to business dressing today, the expectations are confusing. On the one hand, we are dressing less formally in the business context (where those who do not wear a uniform are concerned). The pandemic sped up more relaxed business dressing, as more people worked from home and wore casual clothes as they weren’t visible (except from the shoulders up!). On the other hand, our expectations of Senior Ministers of Government is to wear suits and dress smartly. Unfortunately Rishi Sunak learned how difficult it is to get the balance right, as he was accused of being too formal and had to ditch his jacket and roll his sleeves up when presenting to Conservatives around the country recently. Well, it was rather hot to wear a jacket anyway, so perhaps he didn’t mind that after all. It is a minefield trying to get the formality just right these days.
Judging the book by the cover
We all know that we make judgements about people by what we see, including clothing and how it is worn. I’m afraid that Boris Johnson in a dinner jacket will never look like James Bond, as people wear clothes according to their “clothing personality”. Boris will probably never be described as a sophisticated dresser. (That is not his “clothing personality” in my opinion.)
Image Consultants know that how you dress determines not only respect from others, but can lever authority in certain situations. It does seem a shallow thing to do, but it stems from a survival instinct. [Humans needed to make quick judgements whether someone was a friend or foe on meeting to decide whether to stay or run.]
Authenticity, Transparency and “Brand”
In these days where authenticity and transparency are key, we are making our judgements of those elements based on dress too. The underlying question we ask ourselves is “do we trust this person”? Therefore, I would argue that leaders [and the Prime Minister in particular] need to understand the message they want to portray (their “personal brand”) and stick to that message. It’s a complex thing to not dress to please others, yet to understand the population’s expectations! It actually needs specific attention and crafting, which is why experts are brought in to help public figures get it right.
Margaret Thatcher’s Brand
In my opinion, Margaret Thatcher certainly conveyed her personality through her dress. She was always immaculate, every hair in place even on a windy day, with a sturdy hand-held handbag. I do not recall ever seeing her in trousers. Her classic way of dressing as a female (in her era it was more frowned upon to wear trousers if you were a business woman) spoke volumes about how she followed rules, paid attention to details and planned and prepared. She was a female in a man’s world and stuck to her guns no matter what. She was very determined and did not waver. Her way of dressing mirrored that and was authentic to her personality.
Theresa May’s Brand
Theresa May also has a certain typical style, which includes wearing bold necklaces and some eye-catching shoes. Theresa mixed tailored dresses and trousers with jackets, and not all the time, allowing her the less formal, yet still professional appearance when she was Prime Minister. Theresa wears colour more than Margaret Thatcher did. That is another way in which the modern woman can appear more approachable yet professional. She was also not easily ruffled in difficult conditions and always looked smart and elegant. Again, an example of a consistent dresser.
Liz Truss’ Brand
As far as Liz Truss’ dress sense goes, from what I have seen, she is immaculate and elegant. She does not dress very femininely (with trousers and a boxy jacket), and I feel she is showing how tough it is for a woman to compete with men. She is playing safe and not dressing very colourfully or dramatically. I think her conservative dressing is giving the message that she is a safe pair of hands. Her style is consistent so far, and it will be interesting to see how this evolves, if she becomes the next serving Prime Minister.
A female leader needs to be authentic, consistent, and professional, and their dress sense should reflect their chosen personal brand, paying attention to the current dressing trends. I do not think they need to be fashionable, unless the fashion is consistent with their personal brand.