Table of Contents
II. Biographical information
III. Thatcherism – a definition
IV. Margaret Thatcher – a fashion icon?
V. Fashion and politics
Margaret Thatcher was not only a controversial figure in politics during her time as the British Prime Minister and thereafter, but she has also been described as one of the greatest and most influential politicians in British history by journalists, political scientists and historians. In spite of this, there are still arguments about the political style called Thatcherism. A closer look at Thatcher’s appearance at important political meetings and media events, shows that her look – including her fashion and handbags – was, in fact, a symbol of her leadership style.
The English Oxford Living Dictionary lists a verb created especially for Margaret Thatcher: “to handbag (humorous, informal) – (of a woman) verbally attack or crush (a person or idea) ruthlessly and forcefully.” There are many examples to be found of the former Prime Minister:
“Margaret Thatcher didn't do it when she handbagged Reagan over Grenada.” (English Oxford Living Dictionary)
“They survived being handbagged by Mrs Thatcher, but have they found breathing space beneath Tony Blair's sandbags?” (English Oxford Living Dictionary)
“In appearance, London will give up €1.5billion a year from Britain's annual rebate, handbagged by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 after a traditional Anglo-French spat over farm cash and currently running at around €5billion a year.” (English Oxford Living Dictionary)
“This was Prodi at his most clumsily counterproductive: the deal handbagged by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 clearly does need to be renegotiated to take account of greater UK wealth, a 25-member union and less spending on farm subsidies.” (English Oxford Living Dictionary)
It can be said, that her handbag was one of the main characteristics of her appearance. It seems as if people were actually afraid of it and the possibility of getting ‘handbagged’ by the Prime Minister.
In this paper, I will analyze her appearance at different political and official events and link it with her political opinion and the course of action taken, as well as the outcome of the event. For that purpose, I will begin with some biographical information about Margaret Thatcher before I speak about her politics and the term “Thatcherism”, which was shaped around her. In the main part, I will analyze Thatcher’s outfit and appearance in general, as well as at different political events, to prove my thesis.
I. Biographical information
Margaret Thatcher was a British stateswoman who was born (October 13, 1925) in Grantham, Lincolnshire and who died (April 8, 2013) in London. She was the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She was not only the first woman to have held this office but the period in which she held it was the longest serving of a Prime Minister of Great Britain during the 20th century. From 1975 to 1990, Thatcher was the leader of the Conservative Party. A Soviet journalist from the radio show “Radio Moscow” gave her the nickname “The Iron Lady” because of her verbal attacks against the Soviet Union, as well as her hard-lines politics.
According to Hugo Young, “Thatcher was born to be a politician,” (3) because her family, especially her father, who was an ambitious self-made man, was politically involved. Thatcher spent her childhood with her parents Alfred and Beatrice Roberts and her older sister Muriel in Grantham, near Nottingham. Her father was a local businessman who owned two grocery shops (Young 5-7), and also was a member of the town’s council for 16 years before he lost his position as an alderman in 1952. He was even the mayor of Grantham from 1945 to 1946 (Young 9). Alfred Robert’s active involvement in conservative politics clearly had an impact and influence on “The Iron Lady”.
Thatcher’s parents were devote Christians who brought up both of their daughters as strict Wesleyan Methodists. Alfred Roberts was even a local Methodist preacher in the church they went to, the Finkin Street Methodist Church (Young 6). Later when Margaret was Prime Minister, she expressed her gratitude for the things her father taught her: “I owe almost everything to my father” (Young 4).
Thatcher’s academic career went well from the start. Between 1936 and 1943 she received a county scholarship for the local grammar school, Kesteven & Grantham Girl’s School. Her school reports showed hard work and continual improvement her entire school career, which paved the way to her acceptance in 1943 at Somerville College in Oxford to study chemistry (Young 14). The very same year, she joined the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) and took her very first steps in the political world. In 1946, she became President of OUCA and her presidency term was quoted as being “quite a triumph” (Young 25).
During her time in Oxford she was influenced by political works such as Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” (1944), “which argued that all forms of socialism and economic planning ended inescapably in tyranny” (Young 22).
After the completion of her studies in Oxford and her entrance into politics, she decided to study tax law as a part-time student at the Council for Legal Education in 1950. Thatcher completed her training in December 1953 and qualified as a bar, which is a type of lawyer (Young 32). During that time, she got to know Denis Thatcher, who owned a medium-sized family-owned business, and married him in December 1951 (Young 35).
In 1959, it can be said that her official political career began. She was elected as a member of Parliament for Finchley, a middle-classed suburb of London, in a time where the “1959 election caught the high tide of consensual post-war Conservatism” (Young 41). At this time, her way in British politics pointed upwards.
In 1970, Thatcher became the Secretary of State for Education and Science in the government of Edward Heath (Young 66). In 1975, she defeated Heath in the election for the Tory leadership and became the Leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the leader of the opposition (Young 98). As a result of this, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman in Great Britain to lead a major political party.
Her political rise reached its height when Thatcher won the general election in 1979 and became Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, she placed her political and economical emphasis on the deregulation of the financial sector, flexible labor markets, as well as the privatizations of companies owned by the state and therefore reducing the power of trade unions (Young 129). With these political and economic policies, she intended to reverse Britain’s high unemployment rate and fight the ongoing recession and the struggles thereof as a consequence of the Winter of Discontent. In the winter of 1978/79 there were several strikes in the public sector which demanded “pay raises” (Biddiss 4-5).
The most important events and accomplishments of her three terms as Prime Minister were the victory in the Falkland War in 1982 (Young 258), her line helping to end the Cold War during her leadership (Paoli 170-171), the Trade Union Act of 1984 reducing the power of trade unions (Holmes 38), privatizations of former government run industries (Kavanagh 217-18), as well as increased interest rates and changes in taxes, which helped the British economy to improve. On October 12, 1984 there was an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the Brighton Hotel where Thatcher was staying. She did not get injured but her hotel room was damaged (Moore 309).
On November 28, 1990 Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party because her leadership and tax policies were being challenged (Ionescu 206). She retired from the House of Commons in 1992 and was given a peerage as “Baroness Thatcher” and entitled to sit and speak in the House of Lords. She died in 2013 at the age of 87 in London.
II. Thatcherism – a definition
the political and economic policies of Margaret Thatcher when she was Britain's Prime Minister. It is therefore especially associated with the 1980s in Britain. Some British people think that Thatcherism was good for the British economy because of the emphasis it placed on private enterprise […], privatization, a reduction in inflation and government spending, and the idea that people should help themselves rather than relying on the state to help them. An opposite view is that Thatcherism led to the loss of Britain's traditional industries, a greater gap between the rich and the poor, more people without jobs, and a period in which many British people came to care less about each other than about making money. (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries)
Thatcherism not only describes the beliefs in the fields of politics, economics, social policies, and the political style of the British government at the time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, but also goes far beyond 1990 and into the governments of John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron (Gallas 1). While Thatcher believed in free markets and a small state, meaning among other things, that the government’s influence should be limited to the bare essentials like currency and defense, she also believed in the individual’s right to determine their own life and take responsibility for it (Lawson 64).
Nigel Lawson, a British politician and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Thatcher’s government, described Thatcherism as a political platform valuing free markets with limited government spending and tax cuts linked with British nationalism (Lawson 64).
III. Margaret Thatcher – a fashion icon?
When looking at pictures of Margaret Thatcher starting right after her election in 1979, a well-dressed woman with an individual style can be seen. She began to create her image and appearance to most likely be an example for how women in power should or could dress.
Thatcher represented characteristics mainly associated with men in her field. Her resolve, confidence and aggressiveness were a stark contrast to the feminine clothing she dressed in. It seemed to be that she used her clothing as an act of self-definition, to define her individual identity as Prime Minister. As can be seen in the following analysis of her appearance, Thatcher styled herself to suit political occasions and to send diplomatic and / or political signs by her dress at (political) events. In this context, the most frequent color Thatcher wore as Prime Minister was royal blue, the color of her party.
There are several elements of her appearance that made up her style. Alongside her power suits and the legendary pussybow blouses, which turned her into a style icon, she was known for her haircut, her pearls and, as already mentioned earlier, for her handbag. On all the pictures of her, Thatcher’s haircut was fixed in place with a lot of hairspray. It was swept back from her face and seemed like bullet-proof hair. Her hairstyle was one of the signature features of Margaret Thatcher, as straight und precise as the lady herself.
Another important factor of her outer appearance were her pearls. Since the 1950s, Thatcher wore pearl necklaces and earrings, which became her trademarks. Pearls stand for tradition and reliability and even though expensive, they are still not seen to be as decadent as diamonds. They reflected Thatcher’s personality: straight forward, keeping to the point and not going wherever the wind blows.
At every official occasion and political meeting, Thatcher was wearing a tailored skirt suit, also called a power suit. Since she had to chance clothes throughout the day and was in need of several kind of suits, each suit of hers had skirts in two different lengths, the shorter one for the day, the longer for the evening. Margaret King, a fashion executive at Aquascutum, one of the designers Thatcher used to wear clothes from, remembered: “And the jackets had a variety of “bibs”, pleated or embroidered, which could be poppered into place to create the illusion of a different top underneath, if she needed a quick change.” (Alexander)
Her hair and suit showed the hard side of Thatcher, so to soften up her appearance she wore pussybow blouses. These could be seen as a symbol of femininity. While the suit and hair were strict and clean, the blouses were an element of fashion, making a contribution to her status as a fashion icon.
The handbags of Margaret Thatcher were important accessories and considered to be much more than just fashion. It actually seemed as if the handbag had a life of its own, since it got an entry in the Oxford Dictionary and even politicians referenced the verb ‘to handbag’ in connection with Thatcher. Her ministers and fellow politicians used ‘handbagging’ to describe a dressing down by the first female Prime Minister. Her handbag was ever-present and could be seen on most of her pictures. Most of the time she had a black, squared handbag that had quotations, statistics and thoughts in it to help her through her busy day as a politician. It was ensured that a constant supply of handbags was stocked at Downing Street No. 10 (Conway 176). The handbag was a symbol of Thatcher’s dominant appearance and her style of leadership. Douglas Hurd, Secretary from 1985 until 1989, once said about Thatcher and her handbag, that she “carried the authority of her office always with her. It was in her handbag […] She was asserting it the whole time” (Hennessy 397).
On some of the pictures, especially the early ones, Thatcher was wearing gloves. The gloves, however, were only occasionally present, making them a ladylike accessory rather than a characteristic of her outfit.
IV. Fashion and politics
For some, Thatcher received the status of a fashion icon during the 1980s. But most of the time, the outer appearance of hair, dress and accessories were important aspects of her exercise of political power. She always was interested in clothes but as Prime Minister of Great Britain, she had to focus on her outer appearance even more. The first impression she made as a politician and leader of her country was very important, because, as Will Rogers said: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. For this reason, she discussed her style, the colors she wore and the material of her wardrobe for political and social occasions with her personal assistant Cynthia Crawford (Thatcher 575).
A good example on how her style, outfit and political power were bound together can be found in the time before she became Prime Minister. Thatcher liked to wear hats, because they suited her well and were symbols of her status and class. But as the leader of a major political party, the hat seemed to be a political problem. It was afflicted with prejudices about narrow-minded, petty bourgeoisie. That was not the picture of a leader the party wanted to draw. Therefore, after her election to British Prime Minister she only wore hats for State ceremonies and foreign tours but not on political occasions anymore. (Conway 173-174)
Another example showing how dress can have influence on political power, is taken from the time before Thatcher became Prime Minister. After she won the election against Heath as the leader of the Conservative Party, Thatcher acted and styled herself as a housewife would, performing tasks like making breakfast for her husband and tea and coffee for her fellow politicians. Possibly not all, but many of these pictures were most likely made up to create a special picture of Thatcher by the media. The people were supposed to believe, that Thatcher could responsibly manage the nation and especially the household budget, which was a problem in contemporary Great Britain. (Conway 175-176)
Margaret Thatcher wore a royal blue skirt suit on her first day as Prime Minister in 1979, as can be seen in picture one of the appendix. That was the color of her party, the Conservative Party, also called Tories. Sometimes the color is even called “tory-blue”, if used in context with politics. The suit consisted of a short jacket and a long, pleated skirt. She had a blue handbag in her left hand, one of her important characteristics, and was wearing a patterned blouse and pearl earrings as usual. Her hair was fixed in place, exactly as the public was going to see it for the decades to come. Thatcher was smiling and waving to the crowd, waiting in front of Downing Street Number 10. Her entire appearance seemed to be happy and proud to have won the election and be Prime Minister of Great Britain. Her blue suit showed that she was proud of her party as well and that she was down-to-earth, which means, in this context, that she knew where her success came from and that it would not have been possible to win without the support of the Conservative Party. Her husband can also be seen in this context. He was standing next to her, broad-shouldered and smiling, his eyes look straightforward and body language showing that he was extremely proud of his wife.
For international visits, Thatcher’s outfits had to suit the political purpose of the visit and present her as a political leader, while also showing cultural sympathy and understanding of the country she was visiting. She liked to include the color of the host national flag in her outfit or at the very least to keep the colors of her outfit in harmony with their colors. She even labeled outfits after diplomatic or political meetings, such as “Washington Pink”, “Peking Black”, “Reagan Navy”, “Tokyo Blue” and “Kremlin Silver” (Thatcher 576). Another important point in her outfit planning was the fact that she never wore a new outfit to important meetings. This ensured that she could feel safe, comfortable and not need to worry about her dress.
In the spring of 1987, when Thatcher visited the Soviet Union and President Mikhail Gorbachev, she had the political goal of improving the relationship between the east and the west and talking about ending the Cold War. For this purpose, she had a wide range of outfits to wear in Moscow in order to make the right impression. She wanted to make a dramatic appearance and impress not only the leaders of the Soviet Union, but also the public in both Great Britain, and the Soviet Union and the entire political world around. She carefully chose her outfit for the day of her arrival, which can be seen in picture two of the appendix. She was “stepping from the aircraft in a Philip Somerville Russian style black fur hat, black coat with wide shoulder pads and a ‘statement’ diamond broach” (Conway 179). The media was surprised by this outfit and celebrated Margaret Thatcher in entire Europe and even in the USA for it. Newspapers around the world reacted: The Sun with ‘Moscow Maggie’, ‘Super Mag’ was the headline of the Daily Express, and The Times said ‘Mrs Thatcher looked marvellous in those fur hats’ (Cockerell 319). This entrance not only gave her positive feedback from all over the world and the dramatic appearance she was looking for, but also helped the Conservatives to catch some votes for the upcoming election.
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