I would be a little overdressed at my office in a red power suit. But clearly this new look helped this politician stand out in her field.
The big winner of last week’s election in Britain was unquestionably David Cameron, whose upset majority took pollsters completely by surprise. But running a close second was Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party.
By taking 56 seats in Scotland, she transformed her party, which led the campaign for Scottish independence in September 2014, into the third-largest bloc in the House of Commons and herself into a force to be reckoned with.
“Transformed” being an operative word.
Because since last November, when Ms. Sturgeon became the party leader, she stepped not only out of the shadow of her mentor, Alex Salmond, the party’s former leader, but also out of her former subdued trouser suits, donning a de facto mantle of power: not a red ermine-rimmed cloak but a neat red pencil-skirt dress. As well as a lightened Angela Merkel-style blond bob.
In its echoes of what has become the accepted uniform of female leaders everywhere, left or right no matter, her image evolution signaled her ambitions and revealed the way women are using clothing to manage their transition to power (as well as exposing our own less salubrious prejudices).
“It’s a soft power look,” said Holly Mitchell, a founder and designer, along with Lynsey Blackburn, of the Edinburgh boutique Totty Rocks, who met Ms. Sturgeon when the first minister bought one of their dresses and a matching jacket around the time of her swearing in. Ms. Sturgeon has since been pictured in, among others, their Betty dress (available on their website for 179 pounds, or about $277), their Blitz dress (which she wore to watch the election results come in, also £179) and their Bow dress (£159).
All share the same basic characteristics: bright colors, straight knee-length skirts, three-quarter sleeves and a complete lack of controversy.
The apparel blueprint was established by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000 when, after a much-chronicled, and much-maligned, period of wardrobe experimentation when she was the first lady, she settled into a familiar trouser-suit groove as a senator, one based on an elongated jacket shape with a bit of variety in material and detail. (There’s a reason her Twitter profile includes the term “pantsuit aficionado.”)
But it really achieved prominence with Ms. Merkel’s rise in 2005, when the German chancellor adopted what has become her signature: a pair of straight-cut trousers and contrast three-button jacket with diagonal pockets courtesy of the German designer Bettina Schoenbach.
And it reached critical mass when Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, took a similar approach during her first presidential campaign, in 2010 (and thereafter), with an unfailing allegiance to three-quarter-length-sleeved jackets over simple dresses and trousers.
Ms. Sturgeon’s wardrobe differs slightly from that of the above troika thanks to its slightly more feminine detailing (as well as her penchant for higher-than-usual heels, often by the British label Kurt Geiger), but the overall impression is the same.
It is effectively the female equivalent of the male suit combined with a strategic use of color, as first employed by Queen Elizabeth II, who realized that hat-to-heel bright shades made her stand out in a crowd.
Together this creates a quasi uniform whose familiarity and subconscious accessibility combat the increasing noise around female dress, while nevertheless acknowledging, and exploiting, a certain level of gender differentiation (David Cameron and Jeb Bush can’t exactly wear a tangerine suit, no matter how much they might like to).
It doesn’t move the needle (it doesn’t break open the options of what women can wear without inviting opinion, and you can debate the merits of that kind of bowing to acceptability), but it does blunt its point. It allows the subjects to choose their battles.
Put simply: written one pencil-skirt, three-quarter-sleeved jacket suit critique, written ’em all.
And that moves the conversation from one about clothes to one about policies, and it does it without any associated carping about appearance-related sexism (which can be a rabbit hole unto itself), but simply by attrition.
“People went from criticizing the first minister’s clothes to appreciating them,” Ms. Mitchell of Totty Rocks said of Ms. Sturgeon’s wardrobe transformation. “And then they started listening to what she was saying.”
Bennet Ratcliff, a political consultant and a founder of Thaw Strategies, who has worked on campaigns from Colombia to Arkansas, says: “Voters take comfort from the idea someone is assuming the familiar mantle of leadership. They see it, even if they don’t identify exactly what they are seeing. Fashion changes the way they think about candidates on a very personal, subconscious level.”
It can also (and this is not immaterial in the electoral context) work to soften the edges of what may be more extreme rhetoric by framing the speaker in an entirely centrist visual language. The voice may be saying one thing, but the clothes are conveying another.
None of this has escaped Ms. Sturgeon, who has been upfront about the role that fashion plays in politics. In April, for example, she gave an interview to ITV’s “Tonight” show, in which she said, “You have to be thinking about what you’re wearing, but you don’t want to be thinking about it at the expense of what you really need to be thinking about.”
Given the difference between her before and after looks, this was a smart admission: It answered any charges that she had been managed by image consultants, as it put the responsibility for what Pamela Gillies, the vice chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University, calls Ms. Sturgeon’s “redesign” squarely on her own shoulders. Playing dumb in the clothes game isn’t really a credible position anymore.
And it may be partly why Ms. Sturgeon has remained loyal to Totty Rocks, where Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Blackburn are now responsible for, they said, 80 to 90 percent of the first minister’s public wardrobe. Working within a given framework of her own preferences, they tailor her choices to the occasion (literally; most of her clothes are now bespoke), often sending her swatches and sketches, and sometimes even sewing an outfit at the last minute.
Thus, for the sole televised seven-way British electoral leader debate, which took place in April, after they found out the set was a “harsh blue,” they outfitted her in a warm red coral jacket with gold buttons and a matching dress, the better to make her stand out.
According to the YouGuv poll taken just after the debate, Ms. Sturgeon was the surprise winner, swaying 28 percent of watchers. Since then, Ms. Mitchell said, Totty Rocks has received email requests from women as far away as Singapore and New Zealand who want to “get the look.”
This is the way power dressing spreads.
VANESSA FRIEDMAN MAY 13, 2015