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

Irish Independent - - Lifestyle -

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’

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