So, the V&A have relented. Six of Margaret Thatcher’s outfits are to go on display in December. This follows last year’s rejection of the collection when the museum said the clothes were “best suited to another collection”.
Since Phyllida Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady there has been a revisionist attitude towards Thatcher’s style. Her rehabilitation was apparent at this year’s Vogue 100 – A Century Of Style exhibition, which re-imagined her as a pivotal 1980s fashion icon and prominently featured her David Bailey portrait and a quote from her. The forthcoming V&A exhibition follows a similar narrative. Tim Reeve, the deputy director said: “These carefully selected pieces tell an important story about Margaret Thatcher as a person, as well as reflecting a significant period in British political history in the late 20th century.”
But, like Nancy Reagan, there is something deeply troubling about celebrating the aesthetic sensibilities of someone whose politics were at times abhorrent. How did we get here? With the pendulum swinging towards a more conservative mindset (John Whittingdale and Boris Johnson criticised the V&A’s initial decision), the idea that Thatcher is a style icon has stuck. It is significant that three years after her death this status exists in a context-free setting, without her stance on say, manufacturing, the poll tax and Section 28 to mull over.
Like The Iron Lady, which portrayed her as a diminished and confused older woman, the fashion narrative has drifted. Now she has become the patron saint of “power dressing”, an example of how to dress with strategic and political intent. But by celebrating her style we are in some sense condoning her politics. And the truth was that Thatcher was styled not stylish, a significant difference. She used her outfits as sartorial armour, props to her power play. As Tory backbencher Julian Critchley said: “Margaret Thatcher and her handbag is the same as Winston Churchill and his cigar.” She has become a cipher for all these things, reduced to some pearls, a handbag, boxy powersuit and blow-dried power helmet of hair. The concept of a “Thatcher’s style” is a loaded oxymoron and how can you celebrate that?
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