Handbags and glad rags

A ceremonial funeral with military honours will be held in London today for Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Rachel Marie Walsh takes a closer look at the style history of the original power dresser

BARONESS Thatcher’s legacy will be mixed, to put it mildly, but her unmistakable style will be in there somewhere. “Style icon” is a politically ambiguous label. Divisive women like Thatcher, Eva Peron and Benazir Bhutto all influenced the way women dress, either directly or by inspiring a designer. Margaret Thatcher continued to do both long after she resigned. Her intransigence was infamous, but an awareness of her personal “brand” fuelled her style’s evolution through 11 years in Downing Street. “Every politician has to decide how much he or she is prepared to change [...] appearance for the sake of the media. It may sound grittily honourable to refuse to make any concessions, but such an attitude is likely to betray a lack of seriousness about winning power,” she declared in her first autobiography, Path to Power. The lady may not have been for turning but she could sway a bit.

Perhaps her gentlest incarnation as prime minister was the earliest. In May 1979, a beaming, golden-blonde housewife arrived at No 10, pledging to “bring hope” to a country sapped by James Callaghan’s “Winter of Discontent.” Her flowing, pleated skirt and fitted jacket were a vivid cornflower blue. This was the first of many outfits she wore in her party’s colour. The look was smart, middle-class mummy and the result of a pre-campaign makeover by Saatchi and Saatchi adman Tim Bell and Gordon Reece, head of communications at Conservative Central Office. The media-savvy pair teased her look from shrill Tory matron into twinset-loving, penny-counting homemaker. Her hair is what makes pictures from her first months easily identifiable. The “thatch” was softly set and looked like a strong wind might ruffle it. It did not last long.

To oversee the development of her “Iron Bouffant”, the prime minister kept a professional hairdresser on call. Stylist Daniel Galvin, who once tended to Princess Diana, is credited with putting shades of Marilyn Monroe blonde in Margaret Thatcher’s already-coloured hair. “I met a rather scary Margaret Thatcher when she was leader of the opposition and began her transformation from a ‘barmaid blonde’ to a more demure shade so that she would be taken more seriously,” he tells Elle UK. “She was a terrifying force to be reckoned with and wanted everything done yesterday. She wasn’t best pleased when I informed her that her colour correction would have to be done in stages!”

Her hair was set in Carmen rollers (on foreign trips she requested “a good local hairdresser” equipped with that particular brand of rollers), backcombed and sprayed. The longer she remained in power, the bigger and tougher the helmet hair appeared. That bouffant cast a long shadow over her successors, particularly poor William Hague (now foreign secretary) who had it photoshopped to his head on a 2001 Labour campaign poster.

The pearls were there from the beginning. Central Office warned that jewellery near the face was not flattering on television, but she would not part with them. On the world stage, where she faced down General Galtieri over the Falklands and said “No, No, No” to the ERM, this accessory encapsulated her image. The pearl is a lustrous thing with a gritty core. They were always part of her look in some way — set in oversized costume earrings, pinned to her lapel, on a loose sautoir or a classic, short necklace.

Margaret Thatcher was often reminded she was a grocer’s daughter but she was also the daughter of a dressmaker. Her mother Beatrice gave her an early appreciation for fit, cut and fabric. The Daily Mail reported that she commissioned some clothes she designed herself. She ordered many of her suits from Aquascutum. As well as shopping for high-end designers (Caroline Charles was another favourite), she supported the country’s high street retailers, including M&S and Jaeger. This attitude was similar to what Kate Middleton is so richly praised for: a “get my look” populist luxury.

“From the time of my arrival in Downing Street, Crawfie [Cynthia Crawford, her PA] would help me choose my wardrobe. Together, we would discuss style, colour and cloth. Everything had to do duty on many occasions so tailored suits seemed right.” She never wore trousers and her jackets were nipped at the waist with shoulder-pads that grew through the Eighties, though never into Azzedine Alaïa-style sofa cushions. Her skirts were knee or mid-calf length and even her eveningwear was high-necked. She had fun with pussy-bow necklines and bright colours, which she told The Mail her husband encouraged. Blouses printed with flowers, hound’s tooth, polka-dots and stripes let her indulge her girly side, such as it was.

“I have to be in my Sunday best seven days a week,” she said in a 1984 BBC interview. “If ever there was a day when I was wearing something old and not very nice, you can guarantee that would be the day someone important came to see me.”

When the House of Commons sessions were televised in 1989, she began keeping a diary of what she wore for Prime Minister’s Questions, to prevent her wearing anything twice. She made similar notes on what she wore abroad, as she would often coordinate her clothes with the host nation’s colours.

In her second biography, The Downing Street Years, she suggests her clothes were a kind of armour. “Preparation for the election involved more than politics. I had to be dressed for the occasion,” she recalled of the many designer suits, skirts and jackets she ordered for the 1983 campaign.

A boxy Asprey handbag was her weapon of choice. At a special parliamentary session last week, Lord Paddy Ashdown described being “handbagged” twice weekly while opposing her as leader of the Liberal Democrats. He gave thanks that his experience had been nothing like the drubbing her cabinet must have taken.

“What d’you mean ‘handbagging’?” she asked a Channel 4 journalist who dared to mention it. “Giving as good as you get? Well, they deserve it.”

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