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Can Fashion Sexism Be Political Power? Power Dressing Through the Lens of Sarah Ahmed and Sharon Marcus

Academic essay written for Columbia University's UW.​

On September 9th, 2011 Forbes released an article called “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”. Here, the article presented 13 photos and captions of some of the world’s most powerful female politicians, both past and present. Respectively, the primal focus of the photos were not on the women’s political policies but rather it was on their fashion, and more specifically, the ties and influences their attires had on their political careers. The article defines the word ‘power dressing’ as said to be the “wide range of different ways women communicate power” (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). Thus, a question that immediately emerges from this article is: should we be focusing on the clothes of our female political leaders when their job is to run countries and not be runway models? Women communicate power through so many different mediums, dynamic, history changing channels such as the declaration of war or through glass shattering policies - but their clothes? Hence, we will be exploring this question through the lens of Queer and Feminist theory specialists Sara Ahmed and Sharon Marcus. As Ahmed have stated in Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects) that the relationship between happiness and feminism is one that is immensely complicated - but can her argument on feminism be rendered into the power dynamics found within these politician’s closets? Whilst in Between Women, Marcus writes that the “histories of gender, family, and marriage have focused on how women were defined relative to men” (Marcus, 12). Thus, if feminism at its core means equality for women as a response to the inequality given towards women by men - is a woman’s personal fashion too linked to men? What if fashion can transition from the simplistic tool of “standing out” to political capital? And if such, do women have a choice in choosing to use such capital? In a heavily misogynist world, where it is incredulously difficult for women to accumulate power on their own terms, and much less over men - can sexism be warped into power, and is it politically correct to do so?

As a woman, who aspires to be like the leaders mentioned in the article, I was immediately intrigued by the article’s title. Actually, I was both intrigued and confused. I love fashion, and I love these women. But isn’t this article extremely sexist? Why are people analyzing “Rebiya Kadeer’s rebel braid” and “Ellen Johnson-Sirlea’s regal suits” when these women are respectfully some of the most influential beings in China, and Liberia (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). Kadeer and Johnson-Sirleaa are not runway models, they are wealthy moguls and/or dominant heads of states. Thus, should we be focusing on locks and dresses when these women’s policies literally affect millions of lives? In Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects), Ahmed writes that her essay is “[to] make sense of the complexity of feminism as an activist space” (Ahmed, 1). Furthermore, Ahmed also states that feminism is not just activism but that "feminist spaces are [also] emotional spaces (Ahmed, 4). Therefore although Ahmed initially refers to the word ‘space’ in a figurative sense, ‘space’ in Ahmed’s essay can also be identified with feminism in the literal narrative. But what does these spaces have to do with Kadeer and Ellen Johnson-Sirlea?

"Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 May 2017.

For one, Ahmed is referring to the subject of feminism. But under close inspection, since Ahmed refers to feminism as more than just a subject than perhaps the fashion are more than just mere accessories and clothes. In other words, the social structure and spatial placement in Ahmed’s work are written to reflect each other. Thus, in translation, the social attention paid to the attire of these politicians is perhaps also a reflection to their place in the world (in terms of both attention to both the political appeal and emotional appeal their appearance generate). So why was Forbes focusing on “Rebiya Kadeer’s rebel braid” and “Ellen Johnson-Sirlea’s regal suits” (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”)? For Kadeer, her braids are far more than a change in hairstyle. In actuality, it greatly strengthened her role as a political activist. In specificity, Kadeer began donning her braids and “embroidered skullcap” after her incarceration by the Mainland Chinese government in order to show her “solidarity with the Ughur people of China” - a targeted minority (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). On the other hand, whilst Kadeer’s braids were worn as a symbol of political defiance and in support of the minority, Johnson-Sirlea’s “Afrocentric clothes” were worn as a political move in making her seem more “approachable and relatable” to “Liberia’s [many] ethnic groups” (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). Therefore, whilst both women utilized their ‘signature styles’ to target vastly different audiences - the attention drawn to them in this article is proof in themselves of the clothes’ success at showcasing ulterior political platforms. First of all, both Kadeer and Johnson-Sirlea vehemently projected images of either patriotism or anti-patriotism in their home countries. But more importantly, as I am reading this American article in the US, their stances are also projected onto a global public. Accordingly so, the focus should not be on whether it is a sexist move to focus on the politicians’ clothing but rather that this spotlight can actually be warped into a political weapon. It is not about whether we should be focusing on the clothes of our female political leaders but rather if the clothes add substance to their success and power. And in this case, it does.

But as aforementioned, if feminism at its core is a response to the inequality given towards women by men - is a woman’s personal fashion also linked to men? Consequently, are the fashion statements by these female politicians connected to not only their own individual, political careers but also to men? In Between Women, Marcus writes “because histories of gender, family, and marriage have focused on how women were defined relative to men, bonds between women have been analyzed primarily within lesbian studies” (Marcus, 12). Here, it is clear here that Marcus is making the argument that the ‘man to woman’ relationship did not foster research into the ‘woman’ as the man was perceived dominant in all matters of such study. Hence, in relation to whether female fashion is linked to men - it is. For our female politicians, fashion has come to be used as stand-outs among their peers but also physical platforms for their political careers. Thus, despite these attires being personally donned by the women themselves, the chosen attires were not worn at random and instead heavily selected in order to target home audiences that included both men and women. Moreover, as we will see with Yulia Tymoshenko, the choices in hairstyles and clothing are also apparatuses in engineering credibility among mostly male political opponents.

Laneri, Raquel. "Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 May 2017.

For Tymoshenko, her hairstyle not only transformed her image from “gas princess”, an energy mogul that was laced with charges of corruption but surprisingly elevated her into Ukraine’s first female prime minister (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). In specificity after her arrest for the aforementioned charges, Tymoshenko began to permanently wear her famous “folky braided hairstyle” in congruence with “demure feminine frocks” (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). She did so in order to rebrand herself of as a “modest village teacher” wherefore the braids emulated the political painting of “Ukrainian folklore, innocence, patriotism, royalty and sainthood” (Laneri, “Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success”). Did it work? Indeed, thus, merely 6 years after her arrest, Tymoshenko leveraged her newly created appearance into attaining her country’s highest seat - above all women, and men. Accordingly so, it can be seen from this fact alone that Tymoshenko’s fashion not only influenced her people’s elective choices but was also used as a highly fabricated political maneuver. In other words, one that concocted credibility among both genders.

Subsequently, in regards to Marcus, the professor also adds that “[in addition to dolls and pornography] fashion has been a critical commonplace since feminists first argued that all three turn women into narcissistic, passive objects to be looked at by men. That an active pleasure in looking at women could be a requisite element of heterosexual femininity has been a logical impossibility for a theory that declares active spectatorship and desire to be masculine and limits women to passive identification with the feminine image or active identification with the male gaze.” (Marcus, 112). Here, it is important to gather that the key issue is not whether politicians like Tymochenko alludes femininity or masculinity but rather, that either emulation is judged and received by men. However whilst this statement reiterates that female fashion is linked to the male, it also manifests that the fashion does give power to women in how they are perceived by others due to their dress. As mentioned by Sara Ahmed "feminist spaces are also emotional spaces" furthering Marcus' point that not only does the politician's fashion influence outward judgement but this judgement goes beyond just feminism, it goes beyond just being a statement. (Ahmed, 4). In other words, Ahmed’s “emotional space” is in the political appeal that is received by the people as a result of the effect that fashion has on the outlooker. Therefore, despite fashion having the ability to make women “narcissistic, passive objects”, it can also make women into the most revered figures in the country (Marcus, 112).

Thus, in regards to if woman has a choice in using fashion as political capital - it is a choice that not only women have but have been effectively using for generations. As demonstrated by Kadeer, Johnson-Sirlea, and Tymoshenko - they could have chosen to not adorn their respective, trademark looks, but they did. And in doing so, they effectively utilized fashion to launch themselves into positions of power. Marcus may have analyzed correctly in the linkage of female fashion to men but these political women used that knowledge to their advantage instead of to their detriment. And in correctly identifying that their individual selves and the attached ornaments to their body are more than just objects but rather “spaces” for activism - these women became the living, breathing embodiments of Sara Ahmed’s feminism. In other words, these politicians transformed fashion sexism into successful political armaments. And as a result, in a largely misogynist world where women are gazed and analyzed upon for their attire - these women did not fall prey to sexism. Instead, they are heroes that converted the sexually offensive attention on their clothes into politically correct manipulations of power.

WordCount: 1825

Work Cited

Ahmed, Sara. "Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)." S&F Online. Barnard Center for Research on Women, Summer 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Laneri, Raquel. "Power Dressing: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel And The Way Women Leaders Dress For Success." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 May 2017.


Marcus, Sharon. “Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.” Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

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