In 2017, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II caused a flutter – quite coincidentally, no doubt – by wearing a blue hat with yellow flowers during her speech to the Parliament. Insta(nt) experts saw it as an act of subversive dressing as it reminded them of the EU flag and her wearing that hat was interpreted as an indication of her stand on Brexit. Farfetched as that sounds, we do look at the clothes of people in public life for clues to their stances.
Women in public life face that more than others and as gender studies professor Shira Tarrant aptly puts it in her book Fashion Talks, “femininity (is seen) as artifice and masculinity as substance.” No wonder politicians like Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton have stuck to ‘pants suits’ to signal their refusal to be assessed on their femininity. Kamala Harris, however, made a brave departure by wearing a dress for her swearing in as US vice-president.
This week a far more confident finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman chose a bold red and white silk saree from Andhra, the region of her ‘sasural’ (marital home), to present a Budget that is geared to bring India back on track. The striking broad border embellished with the traditional ikat weave of that area not only stood out in the sombre environs of Lok Sabha, the saree complemented the body language of the silver-haired FM.
A scarce three hours later, she appeared for the usual press conference to field questions on her Booster Shot Budget dressed in a different saree. The colours were gentler – yellow and powder blue, with a glamorous double line of gold zari motifs on the border, this time from her ‘maike’ (home state) of Tamil Nadu. In tune with the lighter hues, she was also visibly relaxed as she answered questions, some with a light-hearted touch.
Sitharaman boldly invited attention to her attire – a departure from the international practice of women in top jobs – thereby reiterating her confidence as a woman and as FM. She dared her audience, challenging the norm of downplaying attire for fear of being criticised as frivolous and superficial. How many of her counterparts elsewhere would make a ‘fashion’ statement on the most important day of their work calendar?
Queen Elizabeth II’s blue-and-yellow hat was inadvertent. Sitharaman’s saree switch was not. There is no reason why serious women leaders should not use their advantage when it comes to choice of clothing to make a statement. Just because men in public life are largely restricted to the colour of their ties – or bundi jackets and angavastrams in India – to express themselves, why should women have to follow suit, quite literally?
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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