In September, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Most recently stepped down after nearly six years in officedid something government leaders rarely do: she modeled in a fashion show.
Dressed in a blue gown and barefoot in a high-necked poncho covered in glittering electrified seed pods, she stood on the runway at the opening of World of Wearable Art, an annual international design competition in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, on two occasions. Restarted after a hiatus of 2019 due to the pandemic. She looks a bit like an alien priestess from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without being a big deal.
Ardern may be known for many things as a leader, but her wardrobe is rarely among them. For example, she is known for successfully making her country successful through COVID; for her deft handling of the mass shootings at two mosques; for her support of “politics of kindness”; for becoming one of New Zealand’s youngest-ever prime ministers at 37; had a baby in office; now, he is one of the few officials who has voluntarily resigned.
Yet throughout her tenure, she has also always understood that fashion is a political tool — one she uses so easily and deftly in the service of her agenda that most people don’t even realize it’s happening.
In doing so, she is at the forefront of a new generation of women in politics — including Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin in leather and denim and New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Coe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hoops and red lipstick—they eschewed the female sameness of the past. These include politicians like Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris (currently dodging a collection of dark trousers), even Margaret Thatcher, with her bows. Instead, young women are developing their own unique leadership styles, seeing image issues as opportunities rather than responsibilities.
Recognize that in the visual age it is as much a part of a communication strategy as any official statement, and that “personal image” doesn’t mean just showing up.
This is a very important shift.
After all, women in politics have been on the defensive for decades when it comes to dressing, viewing it as a gender banner, often used to paint them as shallow and inferior to their male counterparts. The solution is to adopt — or adapt — male uniforms. Claiming they “never think about clothes” if asked. Then wear pretty much the same clothes day in and day out.
But from the start of her tenure in 2017, Ardern has taken a different approach, weaponizing her wardrobe to her own ends rather than having it be weaponized against her. She uses fashion as a form of outreach, not just as a way to support and market local industries (although she does that too), but as a way to connect with her supporters on a personal level.
“She’s proof that women in leadership positions can be approachable,” said Emilia Wickstead, a New Zealand-born London-based designer who Ardern wore last year when she visited then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Britain her skirt. She does this in part through her clothes.
She’s been wearing almost exclusively New Zealand designers since her first election night, when she wore a burgundy jacket and matching shirt from New Zealand label Maaike. And not just one label: many. (A short list includes Juliette Hogan, Kate Sylvester, Ingrid Starnes, Karen Walker, Jessica McCormack and Wickstead.) She wore them for a photoshoot for American Vogue; when meghan markle the cover of British Vogue, which chose her as her guest editor; and the cover of Time Magazine. She wore a bright pink Juliet Hogan suit on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
She defines “New Zealand designer” as broadly as possible, wearing the traditional Maori kahu huruhuru feathered cloak, a symbol of power and respect, at the Commonwealth Dinner at Buckingham Palace in 2018 and a feathered cape at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral II September , custom made by Maori designer Kiri Nathan. (She also wore a feathered cloak in her last official address to the country as prime minister, marking the 150th birth anniversary of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the spiritual leader of Maori.)
In two events that most people in the world only experience in photographs, performance and symbolism are clear.
But perhaps most memorably, she donned a black hijab in a show of solidarity with Muslims after an Australian gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019, Turn what is often seen as a lightning rod for public debate and prejudice into a community statement.
In April, when Ardern reopened her borders to Australians and appeared at the airport to welcome them as the outbreak eased, she told a news program that she wore a green dress on purpose because green and gold are the colors of Australia. national colors. She laughs, but that doesn’t make it any less revelatory. or valid. In fact, making fun of her clothes has become one of her trademarks. She told The New Yorker in 2018 that she wore two pairs of Spanx during an appearance on “The Late Show.” In 2020, she posted a close-up of her pink jacket on Instagram, along with a note: “Why do you only notice you have diaper cream on you when you’re furthest from changing clothes?”
After quarantining with COVID, she posted a photo with the caption: “Somehow I’m still spending the night wearing the same hoodie I’ve been wearing for days.”