The Genteel
March 4, 2021


A publicity still for The Iron Lady (Source:
Georgia May Jagger posing
as Thatcher in Harper’s Bazaar

"I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world." - Margaret Thatcher

Fashion is too often a world of weak women; those who normalise liquid diets, injections of the plastics and narcotics, and "careers" built on family finances and bountiful bosoms. In recent decades, First Ladies have become fashion's positive role models, but their spotlight is still intrinsically tied to their husbands' successes. Few style icons have been as unapologetically independent, ambitious, and successful as Margaret Thatcher, the first female leader of the Western world.

The Iron Lady, a film that "tells the story of a woman who smashed through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world" hits theatres this January, with celebrated actress Meryl Streep playing Thatcher. The role landed Streep, 62, the title of Vogue's oldest cover girl, and inspired Harper's Bazaar to publish a dozen-page spread in which Georgia May Jagger reincarnates Thatcher at the height of her career. With top publications on board, the Thatcher trend promises to trickle down to fashion editorials around the world (trifecta alert: blockbuster movie, historic figure, strong woman). It's only a matter of time before someone throws a power suit and pearls on Andrej Pejic and self-awards the title of decade's most ambitious editorial.

The essence of the well-dressed woman should never be exaggerated. Appearance is the first impression people get of you. And it does matter. It matters tremendously when you represent your country abroad.

Thatcher's wardrobe, like her political career, was conservative and carefully constructed. Tailored power suits with feminine touches like pussycat bows and the occasional silk scarf were staples. Television producer Sir James Gordon Reece coached Thatcher on her image, convincing her to give up hats in the early 1970s, but he couldn't persuade her to sacrifice a strand of pearls given to her by her husband at the birth of her twins. She was unwavering with a properly set helmet of golden hair and impeccable grooming. "She'd grown up at the front of the shop, dressed for work, never in anything less formal than a twinset - and certainly never in trousers," says Abi Morgan, scriptwriter for The Iron Lady.

One of the most iconic elements of Thatcher's style was the black Asprey handbag she owned and carried for over 30 years. This past June, the purse sold for £25,000 at a Christie's charity auction. A Salvatore Ferragamo handbag of hers sold for £82,110 in 2000. The Asprey bag was of particular value because she used it to carry state papers and was photographed with it during some of her most important political meetings. Thatcher herself is credited with the term "handbagging," used to illustrate the rough manner in which she dealt with opponents. The expression has even been added to the Oxford English Dictionary to describe someone who has suffered serious political battery.

Thatcher's conservative politics often clashed with the liberal fashion designers of her day. In 1989, Vivienne Westwood graced the cover of Tatler dressed as the Iron Lady. "Her politics were appalling, but her look gave her incredible presence," said Westwood. British designer Katharine Hamnett, best known for her political t-shirts and ethical business philosophy, once famously showed up to a party at No. 10 Downing Street wearing a long white t-shirt splashed with the slogan "58% DON'T WANT PERSHING," a political statement against Thatcher's nuclear missile policies. 

Thatcher used dress to increase her power and send political messages. "I took a close interest in clothes, as most women do: but it was also extremely important that the impression I gave was right for the political occasion," said Thatcher in her autobiography. She also argued that a politician who refused to change their visual appearance for the job "betrays a lack of seriousness about winning power." The enamel Union Jack she wore on her lapel served as a reminder of the UK's victory in the Falklands War, while her electric blue suits represented her conservative political party.

Thatcher greets Katherine Hamnett in her
protest T-shirt (Source:

When visiting abroad, she often included the colour of the host nation's flag in her outfit. She wore green to symbolize anti-communist messages in Poland, and landed in Russia decked out in fox fur to evoke associations with the Russian bear and Cossacks. "The essence of the well-dressed woman should never be exaggerated. Appearance is the first impression people get of you. And it does matter. It matters tremendously when you represent your country abroad," said Thatcher in a 1985 Vogue interview.

Even speaking about clothes became a conscious electoral strategy designed to appeal to women. She named outfits after the political occasions she wore them to (for example, "Reagan Navy") and would wear them again to invoke happy memories. As such, she avoided wearing favourite outfits to meetings she thought would go poorly, particularly European Council meetings. 

Whether you agreed with her politics or not, Thatcher remains a uniquely strong female role model and a prime example of how fashion (sometimes) really can make a difference. When you see The Iron Lady, take a moment to enjoy the costuming and thank your Hollywood stars that there's finally a movie to make up for years of the Kardashians (almost). 




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