How clothing choices can speak volumes about politicians’ values
Meadhbh McGrath speaks to four Irish politicians about how in a media-saturated world, their clothing choices can speak volumes about their values and can be a key communications tool in building their brand
It was two days before the election of the next Lord Mayor, and Hazel Chu had nothing to wear. With the shops closed during lockdown, she had taken a chance online, and ended up returning everything. “I spent a whole day looking in every high street store possible — Penneys, Zara, BTs, everywhere. I was about to cry at that point!” she says. “My problem after Covid is I’ve gained three dress sizes and nothing in my wardrobe would fit.”
On her last attempt, Chu went to Kildare Village, where she finally tracked down a dress in Escada that was just right for the occasion. But what do you wear with a plain black dress and the 322-year-old chain of office?
“I said, what is me? I have a lot of shoes — about 60-odd pairs,” she says sheepishly. “I thought for a photo, the red Jimmy Choos would be good, but then I thought, I want to wear my high-tops.”
And so, after her official photos, she changed out of her heels into a pair of red Reeboks. With her matching lipstick, the result was simple yet loaded with personality, befitting her new role.
“With this job, there is the perk that I can bring in my own style, hence you see the red high-tops. I don’t make any apologies for it,” says Chu, though she adds she won’t be abandoning her heels for good.
In our media-saturated world, fashion is a key communications tool for politicians in building their brand. Photos travel faster and wider than a lengthy speech, and what you choose to wear can speak volumes about your political values. Critics pay attention to details such as how much an outfit costs or how and where it was made, as well as what that says about the wearer — a high street piece conveys frugality, a decade-old pair of shoes suggests meticulousness, a sustainable brand indicates a passion for environmentalism, an Irish designer signals patriotism, and so on.
Chu has long been interested in fashion
— “at a young age, there were two things I wanted to be: a fighter pilot or a fashion designer,” she laughs — and even interned with designer Yoana Baraschi in New York, but the business of shaping her political image is one she’s still figuring out.
“I’ve managed marketing and PR for some of the biggest companies in the world, yet I’ve never looked at myself as a marketing piece until recently,” she explains. Her style during the election tended to be casual, both to make herself and her voters feel comfortable.
When she wore red lipstick, Chu says people accused her of copying American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “This is me, and I like wearing it. A lot of people say it’s not appropriate for X, Y, Z; I always think, ‘you’re not the person wearing it’. No matter what I put on my feet or my face, it’s mine.”
Male politicians, too, use image in political branding. Although most play it safe in a pinstriped suit and tie, details matter. For example, Dublin Central TD Gary Gannon’s eye-catching campaign posters featured a silhouette of his beard. “I am conscious that it can be distinctive — I’m a tall man with a big ginger beard, and you don’t normally see them in the Dáil,” he says with a laugh. “I just like having a beard, I don’t have much of a cheekbone so it gives me a bit of definition.”
His Dáil photo, too, is quite distinctive thanks to his camel coat. He says he didn’t realise the photos were being taken that day, but he’s happy it stands out. “It gives me a little bit more of a personality,” he notes. The classic coat, from Debenhams, is sharply cut — no sagging shoulders or baggy sleeves — elevating the typical politician’s uniform yet conservative enough to avoid startling the horses.
The Social Democrats TD generally prefers to support Irish businesses, and refrains from shopping online. “I want to make sure that I go to a local shop and buy my suits locally, so I go to a suit shop in Glasnevin, Collar and Cuff,” he says.
Although he’s keen to look “presentable” as a voice of his community, he points out that he still doesn’t receive anywhere near the same scrutiny as women in politics.
“I don’t think my experience is comparable to my female colleagues, especially the comments on what they’re wearing,” he says.
‘With this job, there is the perk that I can bring in my own style, hence you see the red high-tops. I don’t make any apologies for it’
“I wouldn’t get judged in the same manner, but I love nothing more on the weekend than going to the shop in a tracksuit, and I’m very conscious sometimes, ‘Jesus, you don’t see many politicians around wearing a tracksuit’. There was a time where I was nearly apologetic about it, but I quite quickly got over it.”
Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, TD for Dún Laoghaire, says her primary objective for her working wardrobe is that it won’t detract from her words.
“I like simple, professional clothes that are not distracting in any way,” she explains. “I enjoy fashion myself personally, and I enjoy makeup. I remember Laura Kennedy in the
Irish Times once saying she writes about philosophy and lipstick, and she doesn’t see that as in any way a contradiction. Certainly I don’t think the fact that I might like to wear a bright-coloured lipstick has anything to do with my background, education or ability.”
The Fine Gael TD seeks out well-made pieces from ethical designers, and is proud to have held onto the suit her mother bought for her when she was 21.
“I still wear clothes that I bought 10, 12, 15 years ago, and I’m absolutely fastidious about reheeling and repairs. I would rather buy one thing and wear it for 10 years than buy lots of cheaper things. I’m very sensitive about fast fashion, and I try to avoid it,” she says, favouring Irish designers such as Louise Kennedy and sales finds from contemporary brands like Elie Tahari.
While it’s important clothes don’t pull focus, they can also help to reinforce political messages. Green Party TD Francis Noel Duffy points out that he is conscious of how clothes can function as communication devices. “[What I wear] is kind of a statement, and I suppose some of that is coming out of disputes within the party. I’m trying to show signs of strength,” he says.
Before studying to become an architect, Duffy considered going to art college to do fashion, and spent time working for a boutique in Monaghan, which gave him an insight into men’s wardrobes. Now, the Dublin South-West TD’s style sets him apart from his peers.
“I would be slightly embarrassed by some of the stuff I’ve worn, is it too over the top? But it’s nice to look nice. And most men are afraid to. Men are quite conservative when it comes to dressing, and a lot of men are dressed by their wives or their mothers,” he says, adding that it’s “the opposite reality” in his house, as he occasionally shops for his wife, deputy party leader Catherine Martin.
“[The pressure] is still going on women, and I think it’s disgraceful. Men can go around like slobs and nothing is said. If I get any sort of criticism, it’s because I’m maybe overdressed. I take pride in dressing well, I’m representing my community and myself, but so many questions are asked of women that wouldn’t be asked of men.”
He describes his clothes as “kind of hipster”, and says he loves the “smartness” of how men dressed in Victorian times.
“I’m very fussy about what I wear,” he laughs, noting that he often shops in secondhand stores or TK Maxx. “I’ve a very good eye for picking things and I match things that people wouldn’t normally think to match.” Recently in the Dáil he wore a pair of checked trousers, a waistcoat he’d got from a red suit, and a burgundy coat to go over it. “It was a complete mismatch, but it also matched,” he says.
And though the goal is to look professional and make a good impression, he notes that a sophisticated outfit can go a long way to boosting confidence.
“I don’t like the limelight. I find it difficult, and I know that might sound odd as a politician,” he says. “You are power dressing. There’s a lot more beyond what you’re wearing, but you’re trying to sell yourself as best you can. And it’s the peg, not the garment, that sells it.”
Camel coat: Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon Fashion feet: newly-elected Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu in her red high-tops outside the Mansion House
Dapper Green Party TD Francis Noel Duffy with his wife, Catherine Martin
Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill: ‘I’m very sensitive about fast fashion, and I try to avoid it’