How Jacinda Ardern used fashion to play politics without anyone noticing

by

The New York Times

In September, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand who recently stepped down after nearly six years in office, did something government leaders rarely do: Walked in a fashion show as a model.

Wearing a glittering high-necked cape with a print that appeared to depict electrified pods, over a long blue dress and bare feet, she walked the runway at the opening event of the World of Wearable Art, an international design competition held annually in Wellington, capital from New Zealand, which resumed after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. Ardern looked like some sort of alien priestess from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at the same time, it was like it wasn’t all that important.

Ardern may have been known for many things as a leader, but her wardrobe would hardly count as one of them. Among other factors, she was notable for getting her country to successfully face Covid; for her competence in handling a case of mass murder at two mosques; for embracing the “policy of kindness”; for becoming, at age 37, one of New Zealand’s youngest prime ministers; for having a baby during her term; and, now, for being one of the rare heads of government to step down on her own initiative.

However, throughout her tenure, Ardern has also always understood that fashion is a political tool—an instrument she wielded so easily and so subtly, in service of her agenda, that most people didn’t even realize what it was. was happening.

In doing so, she became part of the vanguard of a new generation of women in politics — including Sanna Marin, the leather-and-jeans prime minister of Finland, and Federal Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York, with her hoop earrings and red lipstick—who escaped the uniformity of the leaders who preceded them. Among them were names like Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris (who currently seems to be seeking refuge in a series of dark pantsuits) and even Margaret Thatcher, with her ribbon bows on her collar. Now, younger women are developing their own idiosyncratic leadership styles, styles that treat image-making as an opportunity rather than a chore.

Styles that, in this visual age, are as important a part of a communication strategy as any official statement: they know that a “personal appearance” doesn’t mean simply showing up. And that’s a pretty significant change.

After all, for decades women in politics have taken a defensive posture when it comes to clothing, seeing it as a gender flag often used to paint them as superficial and less substantive than their male counterparts. The solution was to adopt —or adapt— the male uniform. To declare, if asked anything, that they “never thought about clothes.” And then wearing pretty much the same thing every other day.

But since the beginning of her term in 2017, Ardern has taken a different approach, one that has weaponized her wardrobe to serve her ends rather than allowing it to be used against her. The New Zealand Prime Minister has used fashion as a way to gain access, not just as a way to support and promote the local industry (although that is something she has also done), but as a way to connect with her constituents in a meaningful way. guys.

“She proved that women in leadership positions can be approachable,” said Emilia Wickstead, a New Zealand-born, London-based designer who designed the dress Ardern wore on her visit to Boris Johnson, then British Prime Minister, on a trip to the UK last year. And Ardern did that in part through his clothes.

She has almost exclusively worn New Zealand designer pieces since the night of her first election, when she wore a burgundy coat and matching shirt by New Zealand fashion house Maaike. And she didn’t just wear one brand: there were many (a short list includes Juliette Hogan, Kate Sylvester, Ingrid Starnes, Karen Walker, Jessica McCormack and Wickstead). She wore pieces by these designers when she was photographed for the American edition of Vogue magazine; when Meghan Markle chose her for the cover of British Vogue, of which the Duchess of Sussex was guest editor; and when she posed for the cover of Time magazine. Ardern wore a bright pink Juliette Hogan ensemble to her interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

And he defined “New Zealand fashion designers” as broadly as possible, wearing a traditional Maori kahu huruhuru feathered cape — a symbol of power and respect — to the Commonwealth dinner at Buckingham Palace in 2018, and wearing a feather stole to the funeral. of Queen Elizabeth II in September, custom-created by Maori designer Kiri Nathan (she also wore the feathered cape for her last official address to the country as prime minister, made to honor the 150th birthday of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the leader Maori spiritual).

The representation and symbolism, in two events that most of the world has experienced only through photographs, clearly expose Ardern’s position.

But perhaps her most memorable moment was wearing a black headscarf to demonstrate her solidarity with Muslims after an Australian gunman killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques in 2019, transforming a symbol that often sparks controversy and prejudice in public debate. in a community statement.

When Ardern decided to reopen her country’s borders to Australians in April, as the pandemic weakened, and went to the airport to receive her first visitors, she told a news report that she had deliberately worn a green dress, because the green and the Gold is the national color of Australia. She laughed as she said it, but that didn’t make the moment any less telling.

Or effective. Indeed, having fun with her clothing choices has come to become one of Ardern’s trademarks. She told The New Yorker magazine in 2018 that she was wearing two elastic waistbands when she was interviewed on The Late Show. In 2020, he posted an image of a pink coat on Instagram, with the caption: “Why is it always the moments when you don’t have a change of clothes handy that you realize you’re all smeared with diaper cream ?”.

After going through a period of isolation due to Covid, she posted a photo with the caption: “But I’m still going to end the night wearing the same ‘hoodie’ I’ve been wearing for days.”

For power scholars who would like to learn more about how to relate to people, what she says should be required reading.

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