In Politics, Do You Really Need To Leave Style At Home?

Just as beauty can come with brains, substance can be swathed in style. However, in Thailand, once you enter the political arena, you do not want to stand out from those eligible to vote. Running for elected office, while not always about pressing issues, is neither about pressed clothes. To connect fashion with politics may seem frivolous when policies are as strong as a broken stitch, but clothes are not altogether without their uses. It is, therefore, disappointing to see Yingluck Shinawatra dress the way she does as she goes around to woo the electorate, more so when, as a business woman, she was not this dull a dresser.

I am not expecting her to be like the Armani-clad Nancy Pelosi who wore a vintage Mugler suit to a recent State Dinner, or Hilary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin (Mrs Weiner!) who favours Oscar de la Renta, or even Sarah Palin who can shift between soccer mom and sassy politico, all the while wearing those rimless glasses!

(Notice I did not mention Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni as both, to me, are not really in politics. They don’t get their hands dirty enough. Mrs Obama digging up a patch in the South Lawn of the White House to plant a vegetable patch does not count!)

Given the political scenario, I risk sounding flippant talking about Ms Shinawatra’s fashion sense, but now that she is constantly in the public eye, the uniform—black suit and white shirt—she has adopted is so unauthentic that you begin to wonder if what she has been presenting is genuine. Before politics, as president of SC Asset Co., Ltd., she was seen wearing colour-saturated clothes (sometimes of Thai silk) that were anything but dull, and the complete opposite of her present look, which seems an appropriation of a bank clerk’s. As a potential head of the country, she can surely do better.

Yingluck Shinawatra in colourful garb

Not wanting to stand out in politics by way of dress is really a recent, public relations-motivated strategy. In the past, rulers of most lands, near or far, were outfitted to augment their position and power. From Cleopatra to Empress Wu Zetian to Queen Victoria, court dress was designed for them to, well, hold court!  (In the case of Queen Victoria, a fashion era was named after her.) No sovereign was expected to dress like her subjects. It was unthinkable for a supreme ruler to reject clothes that befit her high standing. Now, as politics do not include court rituals, politicians are not inclined to use dress to assert rank or status. In an effort to not appear too distant from fellow members of the party and parliament, and, especially, voters, politicians feel obliged to dress “neutral”, bordering on the lacklustre. This is also one way of appearing approachable.

If Ms Shinawatra’s wardrobe choices are to align her with the guys, I do not see the advantage of being on par with her political opponents such as Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has the same sartorial finesse as a hotel manager on night duty. If she wants to conform to the constituents, then she has perhaps failed to see that even if she dresses like them, it does not mean she can be one of them. Everyone knows she is rich. She need not look otherwise; she need not stay away from fashion to play down the class difference. She can never be proletarian even if she tried!

The thing is, I do not want her to be like you or I. I want her to be better, far better! Heck, she is gunning for leadership of this country; she should look and dress the part. A potential prime minister dealing the populist card has the same allure as a top likay performer. People do not only hear her speak, they see her speak too. Her clothes can, therefore, convey political as well as social messages. Fashion is a personal form of communication. It can be, and have been, used to communicate, among many agendas, nationalism, justice, or unity.

Of course, fashion in Thailand is not a unifier. The on-going colour divide, for example, speaks not only of the effectiveness of colour symbolism, but also the codes that can visibly segregate the opposing masses. They make good footages for TV coverage, of course, but with the grassroots, there’s another kind of immediacy: colours win hearts, or break them.

Party wear for the campaign rounds

Ms Shinawatra’s appointment as Pheu Thai’s leading candidate with the potential to be Thailand first female prime minister reflects social progress and gender equality in the country. While her appointment shows what barriers have broken in Thai politics and the strides Thai women have made in society, what she wears (and how how well she wears them) may put the spotlight on what power or confidence can look like. Moreover, if there’s anyone who can promote Thai fashion (a theme, if you remember, once explored by her brother), shouldn’t she be a leading politician?

It is ironic that Ms Shinawatra chooses to dress so plainly when the majority of her fans are beguiled by her beauty, with so many, especially men, who think she is “cute”. Does this mean that she and we are uncomfortable with attractive femininity as physical representation of political ability?

I am not suggesting that Ms Shinawatra should push the fashion limit—real or imagined—expected of people in public office and dress in such a way as to overawe her audience. But hiding behind the dark suit not unlike those her male counterparts are inclined to wear won’t make her more electable.

In the end, even if what Yingluck Shinatwatra wears will not affect the outcome of the polls, it may bring about an increased awareness of politics, allowing new followers to keep up to speed in what’s going on in the corridors of power. If there is enough interest in her mode of dress, there may be interest in what she stands for or what she will do for the country. Do give people a reason, if not more, to go to the polling station.

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