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Fashion as a Weapon: Resisting the “Glass Cliff” For Women in Politics

Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, uncontestably one of the most powerful convention speeches, stressed women’s increasing empowerment in the US. “My daughters…now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States,” she triumphantly declared in a blue dress, designed by Christian Siriano, known for being inclusive in fashion. The rise of women in politics may seem like progress, but it also points to a trend for women taking on leadership positions in times of crisis.

This phenomenon dates back to the 1970s in Britain, when the first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was elected. The Bretton Woods international monetary order that had been implemented by Western powers by the end of World War II, in July 1944, was breaking down. The Western world was experiencing a period of stagflation that unsettled political, economic and social realms. This period of uncertainty and instability called for a change in government intervention and ideology; the American response to these crises was Ronald Reagan, and the British threw in Margaret Thatcher.  This tendency, to place women in positions of power in periods of crisis when chances of success are low, has been coined the “glass cliff.” Instead of signaling the end of the gender bias, the increasing availability of positions of power to women points to the theory of the glass cliff. The phenomenon undermines women’s legitimacy as leaders, and puts them in a position in which they are expected to fail. It is here that assertive and self-defined fashion choices, like Michelle Obama’s, have such an important role for women in politics. While fashion is not the answer to this dilemma, it is one way to prove wrong those who consciously or unconsciously support the mechanism of the glass cliff. Inevitably subjected to public opinion, women can use the attention fashion gets in their favor as a weapon, both to assert their political message and define their political role.

This problem is far more widespread than just the government. In 2005, a report indicated that companies’ stock prices in the FTSE 100, a share index of companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, suffered when women were appointed to their boards. In response to this report, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam conducted a study that proved that women were certainly not the cause of companies’ failures. Women were just more likely to take on positions men were not interested in because of the precarious circumstances. Because the companies had already moved onto a slippery slope, it was obvious why their stock prices suffered – and it had nothing to do with women being in charge. The theory of the glass cliff reveals a pattern in politics as much as it does in economics. This has been especially striking recently in the UK, where “all the men who were responsible for the mess stabbed each other soundly in the back” and then ran away, said Sani Toksvig, a comedian, writer, and political activist, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party. Brexit is no exception. Not only did David Cameron resign less than a month after the referendum he called, but Boris Johnson withdrew his candidacy to succeed Mr. Cameron. “It’s a case of men going, ‘Wow, it can’t get any worse, quick, let’s put a woman in charge,’” said Ms. Toksvig. The choice of Cameron’s successor was consequently between two women, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Although the Brexit will not go smoothly under Theresa May’s helm, she might not tumble down the glass cliff. Whatever the reasons were that brought her there, and however unworkable the task of negotiating a good deal on Brexit is, she is now fully in power. She might as well try to use fashion as a simple and direct way to define her potency as a leader.

Michelle Obama, as a First Lady and a public figure, has shown the potential impact of fashion on shaping identity as a leader and legitimating political messages. Mrs. Obama has delivered strong political messages throughout her political career through her magnetic speeches but also through her fashion choices. Her outfits, far from just being aesthetically pleasing, carry an important message in the face of the glass cliff. The First Lady has embraced her power and recognized every fashion detail to be of high significance, and of potential political resonance. Her clothing choices have been artfully diplomatic, paying respect to countries’ traditions and almost always wearing their labels while she was visiting them or meeting with officials. She has also used fashion as a symbol of strength and commitment to bigger purposes. At the final state-dinner on October 18, Michelle Obama wore an Atelier Versace gown made of rose gold chain mail. The dress was made especially for the First Lady, and was in line with Donatella Versace’s most recent women’s wear collection. The designer’s collection was “all about a woman’s freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of activity, freedom to fight for their ideas, freedom to be whomever you want to be.” The dress, with its chains, made a parallel with an armor, that the First Lady would mobilize to fight for what she believes in. Her clothes are a forceful declaration of her political message.

"The First Lady has embraced her power and recognized every fashion detail to be of high significance, and of potential political resonance."

Fashion has aroused controversy in politics, especially for women, who fought to end the gender-related conversation. Visible to all, clothing choices are often criticized and used against politicians. Women have suffered from this exposure to the public when misogynists use it to undermine their legitimacy as leaders. In an effort to close the fashion gap between men and women in politics, some women in power have forgotten that clothes can be used as a tool – even a weapon. Hillary Clinton has switched from colorful and quirky outfits to blander suit-type outfits since the beginning of her campaign. While she might have been the more classic type all along, such effort to dress less “feminine” could be an attempt to blend in and relieve herself from some of the controversy that accompanies the run for president. But, this overlooks the full potential of fashion. The public will always care about what candidates wear, and dressing more like men, or dismissing fashion choices altogether won’t work. Because women are most subjected to fashion criticism, clothing can become a powerful tool especially for them. They can intentionally direct attention and define their role as leaders themselves. Fashion’s effect on public opinion is inevitable, but its impact can be controlled. Michelle Obama realizes this, and instead of trying to minimize attention, she is embracing it and making her clothing choices something really worth talking about.

Clothes have meaning and women in power can shape that meaning instead of letting others shape it for and against them. Clinton may have started to understand the inevitable effect of fashion with her joke about “hard choices,” describing a red, white, and blue pantsuit she posted on Instagram at the beginning of her campaign. If Clinton still hasn’t proven that she learned Michelle Obama’s lesson, Theresa May has understood in a literal way that clothes can be used as a platform for political messages by wearing a t-shirt that read “this is what a feminist looks like.” However, writing the message out is not enough; she now has to concretely prove wrong those who doom her to fail and avoid tumbling down the glass cliff. By embracing the public’s attention, and by using her fashion to assert her merited status as a leader, she can take a step towards surpassing the glass cliff with flying colors.


About the Author

Madeleine Thompson '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.