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For Iron Lady, wardrobe was armor

  • New York Times
  • Published Monday, April 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“The lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula” was a neat summing up of the “power woman” presented by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The mix of admiration and fear at the smashing of the glass ceiling by any woman who wore the trousers was expressed in the words of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand of France in 1984 during a spat over the European Economic Community budget.

Yet Thatcher, who died April 8 at age 87, did not wear the pantsuits that later became the uniform of women in power, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. The British prime minister wore tailored skirt suits with padded shoulders. They were softened by pussycat bows, while luscious pearls played off against Iron Lady lacquered hair. A brooch was pinned to the left lapel (not the right, as worn by Meryl Streep portraying Thatcher in the 2011 movie).

As the first major female political leader in the West, Thatcher had a look that was scrutinized like no male politician’s who came before her. And the Thatcher look expressed precisely where feminism stood in the 1980s.

If clothes could talk, they would have revealed volumes about an encounter at No. 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s historic home of velvet drapes and polished furniture. At a fashion gathering in 1984, Thatcher, in her floor-swishing skirt suit set off with a polka-dot floppy bow, faced the designer Katharine Hamnett, who came dressed as a defiant punk in scruffy sneakers and a giant T-shirt printed with a political statement about nuclear missiles.

Thatcher, with her no-nonsense style, might have been expected to ignore comments about how she dressed, especially ones that made fun of those bows and her ever-present handbag.

Yet she once told me that being elected to the International Best Dressed List in 1988 – as an influential role model “of classic middle-of-the-road elegance” – was “one of the greatest moments of my life.” (I didn’t dare ask whether the others were being elected as the first female prime minister, having her twins or winning the Falklands war.)

Thatcher expressed in her persona exactly where working women stood in the 1980s: on low-heeled court shoes and in tailored suits that were a carapace of protection in what was still essentially a man’s world.

The prime minister, who served from 1979 to 1990, took an approach that fitted her background as a grocer’s daughter from an industrial town.

She would choose from a selection sent to her by the British retailer Marks & Spencer and off-the-peg outfits from Aquascutum, which she considered a solid heritage brand. She credited her best-dressed award to the Aquascutum wardrobe, built around a camel coat with a sable collar for her trip to see Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987, when she trumped the overblown wardrobe of his wife, Raisa. Would Thatcher, were she a 21st-century leader, have dressed differently and less severely? After all, she was positively 1950s girlish, showing her softer side, when she wore floral dresses to hang out with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and her evening style was fashioned by Tomasz Starzewski, a Polish/British couturier whose claim to fame was to have dressed Princess Diana.

In a 1980s world where men still ruled, her clothes were a both a shield and a statement about female power.

Or as she once put it: “Please don’t use the word ‘tough.’ People might get the impression that I don’t care. And I do care. Very deeply. Resilient, I think.”

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