At least something thrived in 2020. As women leaders take centerstage, historians will note this year as a breakthrough for fashion politics. In a US election year media focuses on the sartorial legacy of an outgoing First Lady. While Melania Trump is no exception, there have been plenty of fascinating style milestones in high offices around the world. Slovakian president Zuzana Čaputová became the first in Europe to conduct official ceremonies in a mask matching her outfit. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern drew nearly universal praise for her fashion choices and her leadership style in combating coronavirus. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin sparked a rare controversy in liberally-minded Scandinavia over her “topless” photoshoot. Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez continued to reign over Washington with her haircare, nails and lipstick making international headlines. Fashion and politics have finally made peace!
Margaret Thatcher is often credited with a kind of fashion revolution in politics. Her signature tweed skirt suits, a string of pearls as a business accessory, and a wind-proof hairstyle shaped public idea of a Woman-in-Charge for decades. “I stand before you in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world.” While the former British Prime Minister has her place in the Power Style Pantheon, it is time to give credit where else credit is overdue… Her international political reputation is impeccable and with a healthy 1.5 million following on Instagram, she is a bona fide global style influencer in her own right. Meet Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany.
When Merkel took office in 2005, she relied on her academia-friendly sense of style shaped by years of teaching quantum chemistry at a university. In early professional years she appeared rooted in safe non-aesthetics. She navigated another male dominated field with a seeming ease. The professorial vibe was strong. By 2015, she perfected her trouser suit looks combining male dress codes with fashionable color choices. Many remember the iconic G7 protocol photograph from the Bavarian Alps: a lineup of dark suits punctuated halfway with a single bright sky-blue jacket. There she was – an emblem for the new attitude of women in politics. No more conservative rules! Pragmatism is not monochrome! The Chancellor commands the entire Pantone range from pistachio to cherry red and back.
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Merkel has developed her own unmistakable and very comforting style, the public impact of which is often underestimated. The most powerful woman in Germany (and the EU) is aware of the complex messaging system her very appearance has become. It wasn’t always without headaches. In 2008, Angela Merkel attended the inauguration of Norway’s new national opera house in Oslo. For the occasion, she wore a customary black theater gown with a deep cleavage. The following morning that image replaced front page news across Europe. It remains a case study about reckoning on sexism in politics and the media.
Fast forward to… shimmering buttons on a moss-green jacket over a dark blue shirt. Angela Merkel approaches the debate lectern at the Bundestag. “When she wears green, the Chancellor attaches great importance to it,” says color expert Silvia Regnitter-Prehn who advises public figures on color communication. Her choice of green is a sign of consensus, the strategy she often chooses when communicating less popular political decisions. “With her green blazers, she very consciously expresses competence,” says Regnitter-Prehn. Merkel chooses muted colors for formal national events, whereas strong colors are reserved for international or less formal events. She typically slips into the gray blazer for one-to-one meetings to equalize the visual space.
Then, there a curious case of the Merkel Blue. She likes to wear blue on trips abroad. This is not surprising even for non-fashion observers. First of all, blue suits the Chancellor very well. It also conveys the impression of objectivity, harmonious order, and importance. Regnitter-Prehn suggests these values also “somehow stand for Germany”. A color-match made in political heaven! Merkel prefers pink and orange for her more “private citizen” events to express optimism, joie de vivre, and open-mindedness. While red is the color of power and embodies passion and energy, Merkel never leads party negotiations in red! This cannot be a coincidence, but a subtle power move. It is tough to risk being seen as too fashionable among conservative and too boring by the younger generation. She manages the balance well.
The relationship between Angela Merkel and the three-button blazer is a beautiful love story. Her wardrobe is almost entirely tailor-made by German designers including a few known favorites such as Bettina Schoenbach or Anna von Griesheim. Add a contrasting necklace and a Longchamp handbag and you’ve got a no-nonsense style masterclass. Whoever rounds out her style squad must have strict non-disclosure agreements. Only her hairdresser Udo Walz enjoys the right to a humble brag: shaping one of the world’s most recognizable heads (of state).
Combining femininity and authority remains challenging for women in politics today. As the next generation of young leaders rise, dramatically different style norms will be established, where fashion and politics will continue to influence each other.
Additional contribution by Natasha Binar.