As the first ever female British prime minister (1979-1990), the grocer’s daughter from Grantham had to, quite literally, pull up her socks, in order to politically punch above her own weight. The iconic pussy bows, pearls and patent bags we’ve come to associate with her leadership weren’t simply window dressing — but rather part of an artfully-constructed political agenda.
With the imminent release of The Iron Lady biopic starring Meryl Streep, much noise has been made of Mrs T’s signature style. Although she may not possess the undeniable polish of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni Sarkozy, her own sartorial semiotics prove all the more intriguing.
Thatcher’s early fashion days were defined by her Methodist blue collar background. The daughter of a dress-maker and local shop owner, Margaret and her sister Muriel grew up wearing hand-made clothes. It wasn’t until 1951 when the then Conservative representative for Dartford met her wealthy husband Denis that she began to hone her ‘hats and pearls’ look.
Despite achieving further success as education secretary, Thatcher’s appearance lacked mass appeal. In 1974, her image took a critical turn with the help of television producer Gordon Reese.
In cultivating a more commanding tone of voice for the camera (one which is said to have helped Thatcher lead the Conservative Party to victory in the 1979 general election), Reese and her image advisors suggested she abandon her loved accessories.
Although prepared to renounce her pillbox and ribbon toppers, the tough Tory refused to budge on the pearls — a gift given to her by Denis after the birth of their twins in 1953. This isn’t the only instance where Thatcher assumed the role of stage manager. Her iconic Ferragamo handbag proved not only a symbol of femininity in a boisterous boys’ club; but its durable orthodox clasp-top frame was a veritable weapon in itself.
Unlike the British queen whose dainty purses proved more arm candy than armoury, Thatcher wielded hers in the Houses of Parliament to mark her territory. Having reportedly used it to store state papers at meetings with key figureheads such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, Thatcher then famously slammed the accessory onto a table to punctuate her demand for a billion-pound rebate from the EEC. This fast became known as ‘handbagging’ — a term which has since been incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary. Mrs T’s Asprey handbag was sold last summer at a Christie’s auction for £25,000 (€29,804). Not a shabby return-on-investment.
Equally fascinating is the influence she exacted on the power suit. Unlike her trouser-clad contemporaries, Thatcher retained elements of femininity on her own terms. Skirted two-pieces parlayed in traditional tweeds from heritage brands like Aquascutum and Jean Muir became her mainstay — with shoulders broad enough to bear the country’s economic woes.
It’s this sartorial approach to the art of war which copperfastened her standing. “She knew the power that dressing and statement pieces had,” explains designer Heidi Higgins, “which would ensure she was noticed among her male counterparts.”
Stylist Mark Andrew Kelly agrees. “I don’t think she felt the need to dress like a man. However, I do think that her appearance was a way of portraying herself in a serious way. To her, the way she dressed sent a message to the world; it was practical and made an impression before she even had to open her mouth. Indeed, her look was as strict and as right wing as her politics.”
The real power, however, lay in her unabashed, if deliberate, choice of vibrant hues. Shaped by an austere Methodist upbringing, colour was perceived as the remit of power and prestige. By association, it had the ability to bestow confidence and authority, much like the uncompromising cobalt blue suit worn in 1979 upon taking her inaugural appointment as prime minister at 10 Downing Street.
Blue, according to studies, is a masculine colour and also highly accepted by males. In contrast, the stability and durance symbolised by the colour green, not least growth and hope, proved a fitting shade for influencing heads of state from George Bush to Nelson Mandela. Whereas, regal purple is the only appropriate colour in which to greet the queen, Gorbachev, or Cherie and Tony Blair.
“Even to this day,” says Kelly, “there are colours she will not wear and she was known to match the shade of her blouse to whatever topic she might be discussing; usually a jewel tone, like sapphire, the Conservative Party colour.”
Symbolic gestures aside, the real question remains: just what influence, if any, did she wield globally on fashion?
Aside from the current runway redux of ladylike tailoring or photographer Mario Testino’s admission that he solicited her autograph at a 1998 Vogue shoot, Thatcher’s sway has been one of inverse proportions. “It could be argued that punk, which was peaking when she came into power, is the most anti-Thatcher sartorial look ever devised,” asserts Irish Tatler editor Jessie Collins. “And if she contributed to causing a reaction that gave us Vivienne Westwood, then we do have something to thank her for.”
In fact, anti-Thatcherism became the abiding British fashion statement of the 1980s — from bondage gear and safety pins to spiked dog collars and slogan t-shirts. Who could forget designer Katharine Hamnett’s infamous appearance at a 1984 Downing Street party sporting the anti-nuclear message ‘58% DON’T WAN’T PERSHING’?
Regardless of fashionable consensus (a political trait despised by Thatcher), one cannot dispute the sheer steadfastness of her personal style — uncompromising, unapologetic and iron-clad.
It was Thatcher who summed it up best in a 1976 address to her Finchley constituents: “I stand before you tonight in my Res Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the western world. A cold war warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. ‘Well, am I any of those things? Yes … yes, I am an iron lady.”
* The Iron Lady is in cinemas from Friday, January 6