Women’s Dress in Politics
When we look at pictures in the context of politics, we tend to see stately rooms or backdrops and serious-looking men. The photographs evoke thoughts about policies, power, representation – in short, politics. They hardly make us think about something else all those pictures have in common, something so glaringly obvious it is routinely overlooked: clothing. Almost every political photograph in our newspapers shows highly culturally charged clothes. Why do we never notice? And should we notice?
One reason why we may not notice is the fact that the people in those pictures all dress the same. They wear suits. There are exceptions, though – women. And when those exceptions occur, we often feel the need to talk about them. Whilst male politicians seldomly receive media attention for their dress, their female counterparts are frequently judged by their appearance.1
The above picture exemplifies the minefield that is female clothing in a political context. On the surface it shows a large room with white walls and door, candlesticks are placed high on the wall at protruding columns, suggesting an even higher ceiling. The parquet floor is interrupted in the foreground by a white carpet. Three white chairs are standing on the carpet, seated on which are three women. The photograph is structured by the vertical elements in the upper two thirds and the horizontal strip of brown parquet flooring, splitting the shades of white into two. Above this strip sit the three women, front and centre, dominating the picture. Two of the women laugh, the third smiles. They sit upright, legs crossed and hands in their laps. Their postures as well as facial expressions look very similar to each other, making the viewer focus on small differences.
The picture shows German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU commission president and former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister and resigned CDU leader, to which party all three women belong. It was taken at Kramp-Karrenbauer’s appointment as minister of defence on 17th of July 2019 2 and regarded as a historic picture shortly after.3 The ceremony took place in Bellevue Palace and was conducted by the First Vice-President of the Bundesrat, Michael Müller.4 The backdrop of the picture puts the women in a vaguely stately context, whilst their isolated positions suggest an orchestrated actors-audience relationship, in this case the audience lurking behind a camera lens. It was regarded as a symbol of feminist milestones, showcasing three powerful women with international reputation – nevertheless the fact none of them identify as feminists and all belong to the same conservative, male-biased party.5
Plenty of things could be and have been written about this picture, but let us use the photograph to identify strategies women deploy to dress powerfully, a sense the picture seems to convey if one believes the German press.6 A useful concept to analyse dress practice is that of the fashion body (original: Modekörper). Closely connected to and derived from the sociological habitus, Gertrud Lehnert defines the fashion body as a second body created in the amalgamation of dress and personal body.7 This fashion body is, unlike the personal body, public, culturally charged and shaped in its form by contemporary fashion. It can be understood as a second skin, often conveying a body image far from the personal body underneath – historical examples such as the corseted eighteenth-century robe à la francaise help to visualise the idea.8 This heavily boned form of court dress receives its iconic silhouette almost entirely from its undergarments and can be changed into later fashion styles with few alterations, simply by a different set of undergarments. The stays underneath create a slim waist and flat, very upright upper body, while the panniers let the skirt protrude at the sides only, resulting in a fashion body far from what we would perceive to be a ‘normal’ female body.9
Using the fashion body concept, we can look at silhouettes and connotations instead of single items of clothing. Angela Merkel is wearing a blazer and trousers combination in turquoise and black. The blazer doesn’t have lapels and closes very high, but other than that Merkel’s famous identikit10 has a strong resemblance to masculine suits. Especially the loose fit with pronounced, square shoulders is connotated decidedly male, making Merkel’s upper body almost look like a man’s, despite her large bosom. Her flat, closed shoes also resemble male dress shoes. Her femininity, however, is emphasised by the white round neckline visible beneath her blazer and the matching subtle necklace. The most obvious marker of femininity is of course the vivid colour of the blazer, in the context of almost exclusively black suits an exclamation mark declaring: female!11
Ursula von der Leyen’s dress code has changed more over the years. She used to mainly wear trouser suits but has recently started wearing predominantly blazer and trousers combinations as well.12 In this picture her rosé blazer and black trousers are slim fitting. The blazer has a shawl collar, three-quarter sleeves, ends above the hip and has very moderate shoulder padding. Blazer and trousers accentuate her waist and generally slender figure, showing her very feminine silhouette. Nevertheless, her outfit does not deviate much from a male suit with blazer, black trousers and closed shoes – even though hers are high-heeled ankle shoes. She does not wear any jewellery. Comparing Von der Leyen with Angela Merkel next to her, Von der Leyen seems to take Merkel’s identikit as a basis for more feminine variation without diverging too much, keeping the clear markers of masculine formal wear visible. She omits some feminine indicators Merkel uses such as jewellery and bright colour and instead employs a slimmer, softer fit more flattering to her. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is wearing a black blazer and white dress with stripes. The blazer is moderately tailored, with classic lapels and hip length. The dress has a high neckline and straight skirt. The rather loose silhouette with padded shoulders is, however, disrupted by the short length of the dress with it ending well above the knees. As all three women sit, the feature drawing the most attention is Kramp-Karrenbauer’s bare legs. They are even more emphasised by her high-heeled court shoes and the rather low camera angle. In comparison Kramp-Karrenbauer is dressed more feminine than her colleagues, wearing a short dress that shows plenty of bare skin, most prominently her legs.13 This marks her as decidedly female with masculine connotations reduced to her upper body, where she also wears striking jewellery. Even though Kramp-Karrenbauer does not wear colour and her blazer is conservatively cut, of all three women her dress deviates most from the male suit. On social media and in the press her outfit was repeatedly commented on and sparked controversy. Whilst for some it is unstatesmanlike14, others have hailed its femininity as a contrast to her new position.15 Both sides, however, have felt the necessity to comment on the outfit, whereas Von der Leyen’s and Merkel’s dress have hardly been mentioned in the debate.
Female politicians and working women in general have since at least the 1980ies been advised to dress on middle ground between ‘too feminine’ and ‘too masculine’.16 This middle ground however has greatly changed. First forms of the skirt suit – blouse-skirt combinations – emerged in the late nineteenth century with increasing numbers of women in work. Well into the 80ies the skirt suit was the social norm for working women, but in the 1990ies the Power Dress idea arose and trouser suits became more common.17 Nowadays, as Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had to experience, skirts are increasingly looked upon as inappropriate for female politicians as they gain more powerful positions. To understand the reasons for this one has to look at the history of the male suit.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the perception of the male suit as unalterable, understated anti-fashion was established. It started symbolising the exclusively male public sphere and subsequently everything attached to it such as politics and power.18 Since then the suit has become a system of rules that negate the individual body, giving it shelter and shielding it from public view. As Viola Hofmann says, “The suit is generically functional and has a masculine connotation. The vestmental cover shows whom power is attributed to: the bourgeois man.”19 For more on male dominance in politics and how it has prevailed see Jenna Seedorf’s piece “Men’s Club” on this platform.
“The suit is generically functional and has a masculine connotation. The vestmental cover shows whom power is attributed to: the bourgeois man.”
The slowly emerging presence of women in powerful positions has undermined this principle – or has it? As the analysis of the picture above has proven, women are only accepted as political players when dressing in a masculine connotated fashion. Their variations of male suits move inside the narrow margin of masculine power symbols combined with feminine markers inverting the former. Because rooted in nineteenth-century bourgeois is not only the concept of male power but, of course, also that of female powerlessness, of passivity, of being looked at rather than looking. “Femininity is a social construct with a material depository in fashion that implicates voyeuristic viewing from the start”20, Hofmann observes. The quick assertion seems to be that the more masculine a woman dresses, the more powerful she appears. The example of Angela Merkel however shows the boundaries this assertion can have. When running for chancellor for the first time her appearance was met with criticism. The press assessed her outfit as careless and Merkel as not putting enough effort into dressing. What might have been praise for a man became – for a woman – a deficit in femininity.21 Several decades later Merkel has found a style that seems to be an almost perfect balance of masculinity and femininity, at least regarding how little it is talked about. What has certainly helped is the uniformity she has achieved over the years, basically formalising a dress code into existence. Whether this dress code can successfully be employed by others waits to be seen.
“Femininity is a social construct with a material depository in fashion that implicates voyeuristic viewing from the start”
What remains clear is that for women in politics, dressing is an issue they cannot afford to neglect.
So, should we notice clothes when looking at press pictures? I would argue that yes, absolutely. Because even when not talking about it, our subconscious judges based on appearances and may even affect our decisions – such as whether we like Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer or not. And because the way we tend to talk about female politician’s clothes right now, judgmental and misogynist, reflects our society’s norms. The norm of, still, male dominance in politics. And the norm of perceiving women as abnormal.22
Written by Magdalena Baader
1. Hofmann, Viola. Das Kostüm der Macht. Das Erscheinungsbild von Politikern und Politikerinnen von 1949 bis 2013 im Magazin ‘Der Spiegel’. (Textil – Körper – Mode, Dortmunder Studien zur Kulturanthropologie des Textilen, ed. König, Gudrun M., Mentges, Gabriele, Nixdorff, Heide) Bamberg: edition ebersbach, 2014, 226.
2. Müller, Michael. Speech of the First Vice-President of the Bundesrat on 17.07.2019, https://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Frank-Walter-Steinmeier/Reden/2019/07/190717-Entlassung-vdL-Ernennung-AKK.html.
3. E.g. Encke, Julia. Stimmen Sie ab. in: Frankfurter Zeitung, 21.07.2019, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/angela-merkel-akk-und-ursula-von-der-leyen-16294428.html
4. Müller, Speech of the First Vice-President.
5. The proportion of women in the Bundestag by party shows CDU/CSU on the second to last rank in 2019. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1063172/umfrage/frauenanteil-im-bundestag-nach-fraktionen-in-deutschland/
6. E.g.: Bollmann, Ralph, Harmonie auf Zeit. in: Frankfurter Zeitung, 21.07.2019, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/harmonie-auf-zeit-zwischen-kramp-karrenbauer-von-der-leyen-und-merkel-16294809.html.
7. Lehnert, Gertrud. Mode. Theorie, Geschichte und Ästhetik einer kulturellen Praxis. Bielefeld: transcript, 2015, 51-64.
8. Lehnert, Mode, 60-61.
9. For further reading on stays and corsets throughout history, Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2001.
10. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 253.
11. For further reading on colour codes and suits, Harvey, John. Men in black. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
12. Compare e.g., the slideshow in the profile of Ursula v. d. Leyen by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2005-2020) https://www.kas.de/de/web/geschichte-der-cdu/personen/biogramm-detail/-/content/ursula-von-der-leyen-1 or her outfits as defence minister (2018) https://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.neue-vorwuerfe-gegen-das-verteidigungsministerium-erhoehter-verteidigungsbedarf.cbe6d6ad-e075-4aa7-97ed-6c8a248ca40d.html with recent, more softer outfits and colours (2019) https://www.ft.com/content/7f56b426-a32a-11e9-974c-ad1c6ab5efd1.
13. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 116.
14. E.g. Bednarz, Liane, AKK und das Habitus-Problem, in: Tagesspiegel Causa, 07.11.2019, https://causa.tagesspiegel.de/kolumnen/liane-bednarz/akk-und-das-habitus-problem.html, Beyer, Susanne, Was ziehe ich an? Äußerlichkeiten bei Frauen in der Politik, in: Spiegel Online, 03.01.2020, https://www.spiegel.de/politik/kleider-code-der-macht-ist-es-wichtig-wie-politikerinnen-sich-kleiden-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000168763962, https://www.saarbruecker-zeitung.de/fotos/ueberregionale-fotostrecken/fotos-annegret-kramp-karrenbauers-pannen_bid-45186213#3, https://twitter.com/wanoppeln/status/1151524519766626305.
15. E.g. Tiede, Peter, Warum uns dieses Foto freut. AKK, Von der Leyen und Merkel, in: Bild Online, 17.07.2019, https://www.bild.de/politik/inland/politik-inland/akk-von-der-leyen-und-merkel-warum-uns-dieses-foto-freut-63365776.bild.html, Schmidt, Harald, Ein passendes Outfit für AKK. Harald Schmidts Videokolumne, in: Spiegel Online, 22.07.2019, https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/welches-outfit-sollte-akk-bei-der-vereidigung-tragen-a-fb59db6b-bd45-49a0-a668-8484717a07ca, https://twitter.com/moritz_roedle/status/1191488006617796609.
16. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 246-248.
17. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 111-115.
18. Brändli, Sabina. Der herrlich biedere Mann. Vom Siegeszug des bürgerlichen Herrenanzugs im 19. Jahrhundert. Zürich: Chronos, 1998, 19, 263.
19. Translation my own, Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 227.
20. Translation my own, ibid., 226.
21. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 225.
22. Hofmann, Das Kostüm der Macht, 224.
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…