Why are female politicians criticised for what they wear?

attribution:Presidenza della Repubblica [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

This comes up time and time again. Newspapers and other media are vilified by feminists for commenting on the way female politicians, newsreaders and others are dressed, whilst leaving the men in peace. Why is this? Is it an example of the “objectification” of women, as we are led to believe?

I would suggest that, if you take off the women-are-always-the-victims blinkers for a moment, the  reason is obvious. In terms of dress, the women are treated like adults and given great freedom in what they wear. If you have choice, you can expect to attract comment. The men in the photograph above, however, are forced, either by gender stereotyped dress codes, or by social pressure, to wear their school uniform. Look closely at the photograph and the uniform is evident: dark suit, light shirt, and, of course, tie. Even the most desperate of newspaper editors can’t criticise someone for wearing their school uniform.

Now let us look at another example. This is a photograph of the G8 Summit of 2013. Perhaps you can remember what the media had to say about the natty little number that Angela Merkel is wearing.


The answer, of course, is that she was completely ignored. The men, however, were vilified. Why? They were mauled by the press because this group of the most economically powerful men in the world got together the night before and said something along the lines of “it’s going to be hot tomorrow, lads, let’s not wear ties”!

This brings us to the point of this post. Male politicians escape being criticised for their dress only if they toe the line and stick scrupulously to the school uniform. The moment they stray, however slightly, from the stereotyped image of the uniform male, they are berated like children.

We saw the same thing more recently following the Greek election. On my way home from work, I heard four different radio news items, each of which started off with words to the effect of “the new Greek Prime Minister, who was not wearing a tie…” And again when the Greek Finance Minister met George Osborne, there was a photograph on the front page of at least one national broadsheet with a caption pointing out, not the subject of the meeting, but the fact that he was wearing a leather jacket and black boots. And, of course, no tie.


There are many other examples of cases where high-profile men have been criticised for simply not wearing a tie. The simple fact of the matter is that the different treatment of men and women by the media, at least as far as dress goes, arises not from sexism victimising women, but from the deep-rooted discrimination leading to the fact that “serious” men are given no freedom of choice and are expected to dress more formally and uniformly than women. This discrimination extends way beyond politicians and is still evident in many workplaces.

If female politicians all wore a dark suit and smart blouse, or men were allowed the freedom of choice given to women, there would, after a brief period of hysterical astonishment, be no issue.

Finally, it is worth remembering that women MPs can, and do, wear pretty much what they like in the House of Commons. My MP, a man, can be thrown out and prevented from representing me in parliament if he doesn’t wear a jacket and tie. So much for democracy and equality.