It is a cringeworthy moment: high-priced frocks, dashed by graffiti and chains, parading as punk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, of all places. But let’s set that aside. Walking through the museum’s exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, which opened in New York on May 9th, I was struck less by who and what was there—Vivienne Westwood and Sid Vicious, on video; clothes by Balenciaga and Givenchy, zipped, slashed, and pinned up like posers—than I was by what was not. An absence, which, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was one of the very things that London’s avant-garde had fashioned itself against: the former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, and her indomitable two-piece suits.
Fashion is a temporal language of volumes and lines, of nuance and gesture. It lives best in the moment. When placed beneath a retrospective lens, burdened by the question of its current meaning today, even a moment as vibrant and ad-hoc as punk can run pale; in the hands of Andrew Bolton, Curator in The Costume Institute, punk is reduced to a trussed up example, a thinly drawn story, a spirit in pastiche. Faced with mannequins in spiky wigs and a recreation of CBGB’s graffiti-wrecked bathroom, I couldn’t help but wonder if Thatcher’s look has suffered a similar fate. Even after her death, Thatcher’s aesthetic was as polarizing as her politics, and remains symbolic of her neoliberal agenda, the death of British collectivism.
At least that’s one way to read it. But plumbing that two-piece suit for intrinsic political truth seems as risky as turning a painting into a Rorschach test for an artist’s state of mind—or rehashing the story of punk within the framework of corporate couture. It wasn’t the meaning of Thatcher’s clothes that mattered, so much as their visual effect—and the way she carried them off. If we looked at the lines and volumes of Thatcher’s clothes, the historical contexts that shaped them, and also the way she wore them, can we discern something new, maybe even radical, in Thatcher’s sense of style?
Trends in fashion evolve in conversation with the past, so that every shape affirms, distorts, or subverts, a shape that came before (at The Met, a Moschino dress with a shopping bag skirt may want to affirm a DIY spirit, but its price and production most surely distorts it). In this light, Thatcher’s shapes—those British-made suits, conservatively tailored, adorned with pockets, buttons and a signature brooch—can be seen as a confirmation of something quintessentially “British”: the Queen, colonial enterprise, leisure sports, boarding schools and, of course, a rejection of all that was punk. The fact that, initially, Thatcher’s look was fashioned by a man, political strategist Gordon Reece, represents another kind of confirmation of the past. Reece dispensed with Thatcher’s dowdy hats (too middle-class mom), while counseling her to make her coif bigger and brighter (it shouldn’t be too blonde, but it needed to be bolder—more helmet-like, as critics noted later). Reece also enrolled Thatcher in elocution lessons. By the time she was elected Prime Minister, her voice was low and deep, like the call of a ram. All of this stands to confirm that for a woman to be in power she had to resemble a man.
But in the continuum of fashion, this resemblance is also a kind of distortion. Since the Middle Ages, fashion has been a marker of gender difference (prior to that, both sexes wore long, flowing robes). During the Renaissance, men wore plate armor suits and tights—the shape of an Iron Gentleman, with externalized legs and genitals, empowered to work and fight. Meanwhile, women wore high, elaborate collars and full, impenetrable-looking dresses—a baroque, ornamental shape that concealed the body while simultaneously evoking its mysterious presence. These gendered patterns extended through Victorian England, when women wore wide skirts, layers of petticoats, and fitted bodices, while men of all classes wore suits—then a recent innovation in fashion. Compared to corsets and hoop skirts, the lines and volumes of the suit seemed radically modern: linear, efficient and functional, a locomotive in textile form. In at least this regard, one can argue that men’s fashion has always been more cutting edge and progressive than women’s. In her book, Sex and the Suit, Anne Hollander writes, “the ‘gradual modernizations’ in female costumes since 1800 have mainly consisted of trying to catch up with the male ideal more closely.”
This catching up has engendered some of fashion’s most provocative moments. In nineteenth-century Victorian England, the sight of a woman galloping across the countryside, wearing a flowing skirt, a fitted waist and a masculine, double-breasted collar (and presumably wielding a whip), piqued a puzzling, erotic question: What exactly is underneath? Similarly, in the Jazz Age, bobbed haircuts, trousers and vertical flapper dresses—so reminiscent of Art Deco architecture—evoked a seductive androgyny. By the 1980s, the power suit was a form of antagonistic expression, the aesthetic of doing battle in the office. The shoulder pads, the pencil skirts, the pointy-toed pumps, could be read as armor for women, helping them to assimilate into a man’s world while simultaneously communicating the subversive sexual charge of female power.
Thatcher was not the first woman to rock the power suit (Katherine Hepburn, Coco Chanel), but she was the first woman to walk the halls of Parliament as Prime Minister in it. Her contemporary fashion referents included the Queen and Nancy Reagan, yet these women occupied very different political spaces. The Queen, ostensibly, can wear whatever she wants, although Elizabeth II has always stuck to the royal script: feminine but conservative, her aesthetic seems like the sartorial version of afternoon tea. Nancy Reagan favored ruffles and couture (her favorite designer was the extravagant James Galanos), often in a pink- and red-hued palette. Always gazing lovingly upon Ronnie, she was decorous and demure, the socialite lady who lunched. One had the bloodline, the other the man.
Thatcher, of course, had neither. What she did have was steely-eyed confidence, combined with a keen appreciation for elegant fabrics and well-made clothes (her mother had been a dressmaker). Indeed, as a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, who made it to Oxford by the valor of her wits and determination, one assumes she was also keenly aware of the power of clothes to signify. There may have been a vacuum of female shapes to confirm or distort within her particular political sphere, but male shapes were plentiful: Parliament practically brimmed with blue and gray suits. In this narrow context, Thatcher’s suits can be looked at anew. Strictly in terms of form, a bumble-bee yellow suit sectioned off with thick black lines and a strip of military-style buttons running vertically down the jacket, which she first wore at the Conservative Party Conference in 1975, puts one in mind of a minimalist painting, and shares a likeness with one of the “punk” designs at The Met—a Gianni Versace gown, topped in slinky black mesh and violently crisscrossed by black leather straps.
Another Thatcher suit, made of gray Irish wool, with a schoolmarm swing to its skirt, conveys a clever message of appeasement and nostalgia (only to be transfigured in moments when Thatcher clobbered her opponents in Parliament and abroad, as she usually did). A third, worn by Thatcher at the unveiling of her own bronze bust, “Baroness Thatcher,” at the House of Commons, echoes the sporty riding attire of those Victorian dames—an association that suffuses the tailored waist and flared, asymmetrical collar with a sexual charge of its own.
“She has the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” the former French President Francois Mitterrand once said of Thatcher. His phrase deciphers the double-edged blade of Thatcher’s charisma. The Roman Emperor Caligula was known for his tyranny, extravagance and sexually perversity—a top-down kind of power. Monroe, on the other hand, was like a pot of honey in a garden of full of bees. These opposing tensions powered the engine of Thatcher’s appeal—all that verve, conviction and power, zipped up in a tailored, British suit. Mitterrand wasn’t the only man who found himself entranced by Thatcher’s erotic thrill. In an essay written in 1977, two years before Thatcher would clinch the Prime Ministry, Christopher Hitchens described an encounter with Thatcher that was particularly ribald. At an annual conference in Parliament, the two met, and briefly debated the political turmoil in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):
… She maintained her wrongness with such adamantine strength that I eventually conceded the point and bowed slightly to emphasize my acknowledgement. “No,” she said. “Bow lower!” Smiling agreeably, I bent forward a bit farther. “No, no,” she trilled. “Much lower!” I again bent forward, this time much more self-consciously. Stepping around behind me, she unmasked her batteries and smote me on the rear with the parliamentary order-paper that she had been rolling into a cylinder behind her back. As she walked away, she looked back over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words: “Naughty boy!”
Thatcher’s look may have been conceived by a man, but her posture, her presence, her attitude—that alchemical mix that makes up personal style—made her fashion uniquely her own. As Hitchens’s memory illustrates, she infused the lines of her dress with a certain command, creating a language of power—a dominatrix on the rise. Dominatrix, the word, is the feminine form of dominator, the Latin word for ruler or lord, originally used in the non-sexual sense; today, the dominatrix titillates on the tension of tease and denial, concealment and revelation. Her signature uniform is another variation of the suit: this time, the cat suit. Accessorized with a whip, a pageboy cap and a choker, it is, in a way, a wicked subversion of the corset, and also a riff on the muscular lines of the suit. The cat suit hugs every curve of the body, dramatically accentuating the female form while forbidding penetration of any kind, and also evoking a sense of super-natural athleticism (women superheroes wear cat suits too). Thatcher’s sewed-in waists, leather handbag and pussy bows demurely echo this silhouette.
Plenty of women after Thatcher wore similar silhouettes, including Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Sarah Palin. What made Thatcher unique was the way that she filled them. “In modern fashion, the sexuality of clothing is its first quality; clothes address the personal self first of all, and only afterwards the world,” Hollander writes. Thatcher’s hunger for power (the command, “bow lower,” puts one in mind of the Queen; the unveiling of the bust, an unabashed egoism), her hammer-strong conviction, brought (for some) a thrilling tension to what otherwise would have been conservative, granny wear. Likewise, the hug of a well-tailored skirt, the fit of a finely cut jacket, are, in themselves, a form of reassurance—as one’s figure is sculpted and contoured, one’s confidence might be also. In 1980, after the Labour Party called for Thatcher to make a “U-Turn” on her liberalizing economic policies, she stood up at the Conservative Party Conference and gave her infamous rebuttal. Wearing a crisp-looking, royal blue suit, softened by a frilly bow at the neck, crowned by a golden cloud of hair, Thatcher played gender codes like a sorceress. For a nation mired in economic trouble and insecure about its waning global influence, we can think of her visual effect as fulfilling (for some) a kind of collective fantasy. A cross-dressing, androgynous, dominatrix queen, at the height of political power, she leaned into the microphone, and eloquently cooed: “The lady’s not for turning.” The line evokes an arousing visual image, in the vein of Thatcher’s previous encounter with Hitchens: her feminine silhouette was always on display, and ever in control.
While not many would call this a subversive moment in fashion history, it did inspire a number of designers to defy and transfigure the reigning status quo. In 1989, Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as Thatcher—it was a burlesque and lacerating approximation, and also uncanny, given Westwood’s own reappropriations of BDSM styles (which are so overplayed in PUNK that they lose their edge all together). In the early 2000s, a new generation of designers, namely Marc Jacobs, transfigured the Iron Lady’s wardrobe into its most current expression as seen on the street—a high-low rhythm of leather and pearls, leopard and lace, the language of dowager chic. Meanwhile, many female politicians after Thatcher have played on gender roles as she did, but no one summoned up as much sexual charge, or seized so firmly upon a nation’s flailing confidence, as Sarah Palin. For some, her visual effect—another scramble of shapes, including the nostalgic beehive and cat eye glasses, the hockey-mom posture, the sassy, form-hugging jackets—was irresistibly seductive in the face of economic catastrophe.
All of which is to say, one doesn’t have to be a Reaganite, or a British granny, to earnestly applaud Thatcher’s fashion. Indeed, she recently found support in what appears to be an unlikely corner. At her funeral in April, a long-bearded man dressed in combat boots stopped before a photographer and rolled up the leg of his cargo pants. His calf was crowded with skull tattoos. One of them was fresh. In a shade of ink more vivid and dark than the rest, it honored the memory of Thatcher with an image of a skull, accompanied by text: She Never Turned.
Thatcher’s career was made and later broken by the strength of such convictions. By 1991, she was voted out of office when her increasingly authoritarian stance alienated her from her party and her voters. Thus came to an end her eleven years in office, the longest running term a Prime Minister has ever served. In the continuum of fashion, the man’s tattoo (or a Versace gown) may seem like distortion gone wild. Then again, there’s something about the indelible image that captures the spirit of Thatcher’s style, the effervescence she brought to her clothes. Iron Lady, Fashion Rebel: hers was a brand of rugged individualism that even a self-styled anarchist could admire.