Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, passed away earlier this morning of a stroke at the age of 87.
As one of the first women to hold such a powerful political position in the Western world, Thatcher’s political legacy will obviously endure for decades to come–but her fashion legacy, too, will have a lasting effect on female politicians.
In many ways Thatcher’s dress sense set the mold for how female politicians dress today: conservative, powerful (yet feminine) and above all, consistent.
“Thatcher was definitely the first political power dresser, and she set the standard for consistency,” Kate Betts, fashion journalist and author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, wrote in an email. “Style is all about being consistent, isn’t it?”
Indeed, Thatcher stuck almost exclusively to a signature ensemble throughout her life: a ‘power’ skirt suit with exaggerated shoulders (often in blue, her party’s color), pearl necklace, pussy-bow blouse, and that notorious Asprey handbag. For the former PM, these items were more than just fashion; they were her armor. “I’m always safe in it,” Thatcher once said of her signature ensemble.
In fact, Thatcher wore that Asprey handbag so often, it came to symbolize the Iron Lady’s tough negotiation style, eventually giving way to the phrase ‘handbagging’–referring to getting scolded at work or getting fired. (It was put up for auction this summer and sold for a cool $39,000.)
Thatcher not only pioneered a style we’ve come to associate with female politicians, but also the practice of wearing the same style and designer.
“She created her uniform and others followed: Aquascutum suits, pearls, and the ubiquitous Asprey handbag,” Betts said.
Betts recalls her first encounter with Thatcher–one that would solidify the Prime Minister’s no-muss, no fuss attitude:
“I remember meeting her once at a fashion event at Spencer House (I think that’s where it was) in the late 1980s, probably 89 or even 90. She was coming down the staircase in a bordeaux colored suit and James Fallon (WWD editor) and I were rushing up the stairs. Of course we were WWD reporters so we were late and we had hardly said hello or introduced ourselves before asking her who made her suit. She looked down her nose and said “Aquascutum” and kept walking, didn’t even break stride. I’ll never forget that moment.”
As in politics, Thatcher knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it.
“She knows precisely what she wants and she’s particular about the fit of the shoulders,” the former design director of Aquascutum, Marianne Abrahams, who was responsible for most of Thatcher’s clothes, once said.
Most importantly, in an age when women struggled to dress for the mostly male dominated work place, Thatcher, far from shunning fashion, embraced its power.
“Thatcher used clothing to help create a variety of personas from housewife to the Iron Lady, and to build relationships overseas and send political messages,” Thatcher’s personal assistant, dresser and close confidante Cynthia Crawford told Loughborough University’s Dr. Daniel Conway. “She was initially resistant about focusing on dress in her public life, but over time learned to adapt and master dress to suit certain political ends and help craft a dominant and secure political status.”
In doing so, she helped pave the way for strong women, political or not, to embrace their fashion sense–and their power–at the same time. Hillary Clinton‘s pant suits, Condoleeza Rice’s pearls, and Nancy Pelosi’s fitted monochromatic skirt suits, all owe a great deal to Thatcher.