Joan Smith: Pussycat bows? What was Maggie thinking?


On the day Margaret Thatcher was confirmed as leader of the Conservative Party, she wore a light-coloured suit with a huge silk bow at the neckline. The bow was one of her trademarks, sending a message about how she intended to tackle her new job. Thatcher might be accused of "wearing the trousers" – a common insult towards ambitious women then – in a party shocked to find itself with a female leader. But her clothes promised she wouldn't do it at the expense of her femininity.

Tomorrow, seven suits worn by Thatcher in the 1970s are to be auctioned by Christie's. The colours are surprising: pale green, peach and canary yellow, in contrast to the deep blues and maroons she favoured later. This is the uniform Thatcher adopted when first under public scrutiny – a classic example of defensive dressing, emphasising that she was middle-class and middle-aged at a time when half the country was getting into jeans.

The Conservative Party didn't know what to make of Thatcher. Neither did some reporters. "From my teens I've looked after my skin," she told a Sun journalist during the 1979 general election campaign. "I never used soap and water on it, although I come from a very soap-and-water-minded family." I don't suppose the outgoing prime minister, Jim Callaghan, had to field many questions about his cleansing routine.

When she became prime minister, Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Tory benches. Her choice of clothes aged her, but it also sat oddly with her steely ambition. France's President Mitterrand said as much, according to his aide Jacques Attali, who remembered his boss observing that Thatcher had "the eyes of Stalin and the voice of Marilyn Monroe". It's a disconcerting image, juxtaposing masculine power and feminine seductiveness. In a staunchly reactionary party, it was also a huge gamble.

Thatcher didn't promote Tory women or bother to make alliances with the handful of female MPs struggling to follow in her footsteps. Tory men never quite trusted her. She ended up isolated from both sexes, only discovering how few friends she had when she was forced to fight for her political life in the autumn of 1990. The suit she wore for her resignation speech was a sombre, funereal version of the outfits she wore in her early days.

She went out in a sober plum skirt and jacket, a female version of a man's suit. Every aspect of her voice and appearance jarred: she was brittle, constructed and artificial. After all those years, Margaret Thatcher still hadn't resolved her confusion about gender and power. And I can't think of a better symbol of it than those dreadful pussycat bows.;

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own