Why spouses of the powerful get such short shrift
Before indulging in a teeny-weeny bit of sympathy for celebrities whose private lives are flayed open for the public to feast on, spare a thought for what global leaders and their spouses have to endure.
If it’s not the Italian stallion, Silvio Berlusconi having flings with escorts, or holding frivolous parties, prompting calls he should be put out to pasture (from everyone and everywhere but his actual Italian constituents), or Vladamir Putin rising out the water, James Bond-esque, in budgie smugglers and with a well-toned body that defies his age, making world headlines, then it’s what the partners of these leaders are wearing.
In fact, when it comes to powerful women and/or the female spouses of Presidents and Prime Ministers, the fashion police are criminally biased.
The latest pictures and subsequent gossip to hit the headlines is of Michelle Obama in - wait for it - a pair of shorts. The First Lady has been snapped wearing a very sensible pair of shorts and showing a bit of leg. A similar sort of discussion raged when she wore a sleeveless white gown, revealing slender, toned arms at one of her husband’s many inauguration balls.
The media has gone crazy, prompting discussions about what is and isn’t appropriate for someone in her position to wear.
According to reports, many want to give Mrs Obama a right dressing down for, well, dressing down – even on holidays.
Her age, generation, status as wife and mother of two young girls, and the context in which she’s photographed, never mind her right to privacy, are suddenly cast in the shade by her primary function as a role model for women and wife of the American President. Seems a great deal is at stake when it comes to First Lady fashions.
That something so seemingly trivial makes world news reveals, not only the pressure placed on people in such public positions to project a certain kind of status and worthiness through their clothes, but also the microscopic evaluations and meaning attached to their every outfit – even in their private lives.
This concept is not new. As historian of dress, Stella Mary-Newton notes: ‘In all societies dress is first and foremost a means of communication, conscious and unconscious but inescapable.’
This is something our own First Sheila, Therese Rein, learned in a painful way when photos of her working out at a gym were released. Similarly, her excursion in a pair of leggings attracted a barrage of criticism, even though she was not on “official” duty. Some didn’t like what Ms Rein was communicating. A more casual approach to power, perhaps?
Former Prime Minister John Howard was praised for his brisk morning walks in a track suit, but the tut-tut brigade would come out in force if Ms Rein wants to don informal attire.
From Jacqueline Kennedy to the Bush women, buttoning up didn’t just mean keeping silent. Their dress, with their high necks, collars, and formality, was a visual cue as to how these women wanted the rest of the world to view them, their partners and their country. Their clothes exuded an air of respectability, femininity and, in Hilary Clinton’s case, professionalism.
Our own Governor General, Quentin Bryce, never puts a hat or glove wrong, looking a picture of elegance and sophistication in her almost interchangeable suits. Princess Mary dresses with style, but it’s one more reminiscent of the costumes of Mad Men or Stepford Wives than a young woman in the millennium. But this is considered appropriate. They represent more than themselves, hence the focus on what not to wear. But there’s something very cookie-cutter, if not downright anachronistic about these ensembles, isn’t there?
Princess Diana dared to be different, and the paparazzi swooped. So the question arises, is it worth stepping outside the stereotype, challenging the fashionable expectations of a fickle public? No doubt, like Michelle Obama, women who defy the rules feel short-changed.
For the comments are not limited to the clothing (or, lack thereof). Weight, height, hair and shoes, nothing escapes excoriating critical attention. Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Bronwyn Bishop and former Victorian Premier, Joan Kirner, have all had their fair share of analysis – much of it negative.
While the men occasionally receive comments on their appearance, such as Victorian Ted Baillieu, or Queenslander Lawrence Springborg, for their choice of swimwear and physical shape, Kevin Rudd for his ties, and Malcolm Turnbull for his penchant for designer suits, it’s the women who are judged by their covers alone.
The adage that “clothes maketh the man” is true. For when it comes to powerful women expressing themselves through their apparel, they’re always going to be out of fashion.
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