Why the UK doesn’t have a Michelle Obama

In an article in The Sunday Times last week, Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue was quoted as being frustrated that “you can’t get a politician into Vogue because there is a fear that being in fashion makes you frivolous.” And she adds that “In the US and France it’s more egalitarian; it’s fine for everyone to be interested in looking good.”

The article, entitled Why doesn’t the UK have a Michelle Obama?, was about how women in the political spotlight influence fashion trends.  Its central theme was that Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the French President’s wife (representing US and European ‘politicas’) know how to dress and British ones don’t.

It’s a theme I’ve been talking (and trying to do something) about since the 1970s, so it’s hard to disagree with the argument.  And the article is a good read.

But I can’t help feeling that these journalists are simply writing about the problem, when they and the media in general could and should be part of the solution.

If British women in the political (or business) spotlight don’t know how to dress, it’s because for several decades they’ve had pretty much no-one to show them how to do the “all-purpose savoir fair” of Mme Sarkozy.

And it’s a gap which I think the fashion press could easily do a better job of filling.

Professional British women think they’re being frivolous when they spend money on clothes because our magazines – even the best ones and even when they’re doing features on how to dress for work – mostly show clothes that most professional women over 35 or bigger than a size 12 could not wear for work without looking ridiculous.  So they’re simply not catered for unless they want to buy a boring suit from one of the usual suspects.

It hasn’t always been this way.  England in the 1950s was one of the most stylish places to be – excellent tailoring, classic styling.  But in the 1960s, when more women started to go to university, an idea took hold that intelligent women didn’t need to look good.  A reverse snobbery emerged, mostly among people who did go to university, where they didn’t have to bother about appearance.  And the attitude remained as they entered the workplace.

Meanwhile, there was the swinging sixties style of the likes of Biba and Mary Quant.   Europeans came to London, loved the slightly androgynous, carefree Carnaby Street style, but they didn’t wear it all the time.

Understandably the media took this up.  But they’ve never let it go (after all, most of our media are now run by people who grew up in the sixties – or after).  And partly as a result, British women have largely lost the ability confidently to put together a personal style that looks successful without looking flashy.

I agree that if you’re in a position of power – whether a politician, lawyer, accountant, or any other professional role – it’s your duty to look good; and I believe that most people prefer to see someone in a position of responsibility looking confident and successful (and that’s successful, not flashy) because they instinctively feel that if you’re confident and successful you might be able to help them.

And I think that goes for our fashion press too.  They have a duty to be more geared towards helping British women achieve that savoir faire; to finding out what really works for businesswomen, ‘politicas’ and anyone else who is serious about creating an effective personal style.

And then once they’ve achieved that , to stop knocking them down for looking confident and successful.