When Nicola Sturgeon was interviewed in the Financial Times last December, she described the focus on her appearance in the following terms: “It’s probably not a single day goes by when I don’t read some derogatory comment about myself, about how I look or what I’m wearing.” Since then, however, the commentary about her clothes has been as positive as her increasing popularity in the opinion polls; even the Daily Mail – that implacable opponent of Sturgeon’s politics – has declared that her spring-green tailoring makes “the male leaders’ dark suits seem as old as their arguments”. And the Mail is even more enamoured of her newly highlighted hair: “a chic, choppy, youthful but not frivolous, golden halo of Princess Diana-like loveliness – a ray of sunshine that says this woman means business”.
There are those who will deem the enthusiastic reporting of Sturgeon’s wardrobe choices to be as sexist as the negativity that she has referred to in the past; yet such observations are by no means confined to female politicians. Consider the way in which Ed Miliband has gone from being mocked for his nerdish ineptitude with bacon sandwiches to social media sex symbol, with legions of Twitter “Milifans” chirruping about his coolness (or hotness, depending on which accounts you look at).
But let’s put aside the rise of Milifandom and consider instead the possibility that fashion and feminism need not be mutually exclusive. After all, the early suffragettes chose to identify themselves by wearing certain colours as they fought to gain the vote: purple, white and green, emblematic of dignity, purity and hope. Over a century later, is there a similarly specific message in Sturgeon’s bespoke crimson and coral dresses from the Edinburgh boutique Totty Rocks and her raspberry-pink stilettos? Or is it simply that she and her team of stylists have decided that vertiginous heels and bright colours make her look more confident?
Certainly there is a precedent for sartorial strategy. Margaret Thatcher evolved from wearing mostly mousy clothes as an Oxford undergraduate – “rather a brown girl”, in the words of one of her contemporaries – to an ambitious young Conservative with a keen sense of dressing for success. As Charles Moore notes in the first volume of his Thatcher biography, her letters to her sister, Muriel, often mentioned clothes or accessories in the context of her political engagements: smart black two-pieces, wine-coloured shoes, pink uplift bras. “I shall have to look nice from skin outwards and from head to heel,” she wrote, soon after her selection as prospective candidate for Dartford in 1949. And by the time she achieved her first position of power, as a junior minister in 1961, Thatcher made sure she was clad in her “best outfit, sapphire blue”, for an appointment to see the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, and in “a royal blue dress and hat” for the Conservative party conference that year.
The suggestion that Nicola Sturgeon might have anything in common with the former prime minister is said to annoy her (history does not relate her response to George Galloway’s gibe that she is “Thatcher in a kilt”). Indeed, the Scottish First Minister has declared she was motivated by a strong dislike of Thatcherism: “. . . she is one of the key reasons I’m in politics, though not for the reasons she would have wanted, but because I grew up opposed to everything she stood for.” And yet, despite this antipathy, the two women seem to have shared an understanding of how they would be judged by appearances; or, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, “frock consciousness”.
In Sturgeon’s case, as the campaign intensifies, her male opponents are attempting to undermine her by using the language of clothes (albeit somewhat unimaginatively). According to Boris Johnson, voters should fear the prospect of “Nicola Sturgeon wearing the tartan trousers”, while Nigel Farage has appealed to voters to switch to Ukip to prevent “the nightmare of a Labour administration that depends on the SNP for survival. Everyone knows that it will be Nicola Sturgeon who wears the trousers in that relationship.”
Could it be that her retort is revealed, at least in part, by the steadily rising height of her stilettos? After all, when Alex Salmond resigned as SNP leader after losing the Scottish referendum last September, Sturgeon staked her claim as front-runner for the job in the following terms: “His are big boots to fill, but if given the opportunity to lead, I will wear my own shoes – and they will certainly have higher heels.” And though she clearly remains opposed to all that the Iron Lady stood for, Nicola Sturgeon may yet walk in her footsteps; not in tartan trousers or a kilt, but a Totty Rocks red dress, teamed with fierce conviction and heels as sharp as a knife-edge. In fashion, as in politics, the devil is in the detail.
Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar