why is it so difficult for women in power to dress ‘correctly’?


As Angela Rayner arrived to take up her new role as deputy prime minister, some online commentators went into meltdown – not because of her historic appointment, but because of what she was wearing.

Rayner walked up to Number 10 Downing Street wearing a bright green, relaxed cut, trouser suit from the brand Me+Em. According to fashion writer Laura Craik, this is the go-to fashion brand for many female politicians, celebrities and royals.

The criticisms of Rayner in her suit were twofold. First, that it did not look good, she looked like a “clown”, it was too bright, it did not fit. Second, Rayner is famously from a working-class background, and the suit is said to have cost £550.

So the suggestion is that she has “sold out”, and she should have worn something more befitting a person from a working-class background. Although it’s not clear what that is.

Despite having had three female prime ministers previously, (one famously the daughter of a shopkeeper), social class is still an issue for women in politics.

Another new cabinet member, transport secretary Louise Haigh, was also mocked online for her outfit – notably, for not wearing a suit.

These criticisms remind us of the difficulties that women have when they become successful and more importantly, powerful. What is appropriate to wear to convey power and success?

For men, it’s very easy. Men wear suits. The man in a suit and tie is the man in charge. In Britain, one of the phrases which indicates smartness is the resolutely male “suited and booted”.

I research masculinity and clothing and have found that suits are more complicated than they first seem, depending on who wears them. Academic Tim Edwards notes that one of the first suits was worn by King Louis XIV in the 17th century. This plain jacket and trousers replaced more flamboyant outfits and was used to indicate power and gravitas.

Today, suits are commonly available for men of all ages. They are as appropriate for a boy to wear to his first communion, to his prom and to the interview for his first job, as they are for world leaders. In my research, I suggest that boys who wear suits are “men in waiting”, and they are waiting to gain the power that men have as they get older.

What about the women?

Given that women have traditionally been absent from powerful roles in great numbers, it’s difficult to know what they can wear that conveys the same power that men in suits do.

In modern times, female politicians have worn suits in some form. Margaret Thatcher was a huge fan of skirt suits and pussy-bow blouses, for which she received little, if any, criticism.

The next female prime minister, Theresa May, received much more attention (and some criticism) for her arguably more fashionable and fun shoe choices.

The “rules” about what women should and shouldn’t wear seem intrinsically sexist, given that no such rules appear to apply to men. One of the most notable male politician fashion controversies in recent years was Barack Obama’s tan suit, though the attention was largely because it was an unusual choice for the president.

My research suggests that trouser suits are inherently difficult for women to wear, as they are generally cut for men. While Madonna famously made suits “sexy” for women in the 1990s, the suits were made for her to perform in, and they fitted her accordingly.

Famous women in power who wore suits, such as Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton, wore pantsuits, a longer line jacket and often trousers in a contrasting colour. Clinton later revealed that her decision to wear pantsuits instead of skirts came after an advertisement used a “suggestive” up-the-skirt photo of her – another example of the sexism powerful women face related to their dress.

Angela Merkel, wearing a yellow jacket and black trousers, walks with Joe Biden, wearing a navy suit, in the White House rose garden
Angela Merkel, seen here with Joe Biden in 2021, often wears trousers and a jacket.
Adam Schultz/Alamy

But it’s only recently that suits have even been an option. While women in trousers were considered daring in the 1920s, women were banned from wearing them in Congress until the mid 1990s. An archaic law banning women from wearing trousers still existed in Paris until 2013, (of course, it was widely disobeyed until then).

Today, trouser suits are still culturally considered men’s garments, and they easily represent masculinity and, therefore, power. Even Me+Em, the brand which made Rayner’s suit, states on its website: “Find a selection of ‘borrowed from the boys’ suiting.”

This leads to the idea that there is no single garment, or group of garments that can give women the same, or similar gravitas, that men’s suits give men. Problematically, like young boys, women in suits look as if they are borrowing power, which suggests they cannot have power of their own.

As women become more dominant in politics, they are also trying to look smart, businesslike and powerful. One of the things that criticisms of women’s clothing does is remind us of the relative novelty of women’s power.



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