Political Dress and the UK Referendum

Yesterday, here in the UK, was the last day anyone eligible to vote in the imminent referendum could register to do so by post. With just over two weeks to go before the actual event, the constant barrage of media discussion and debate concerning whether the UK should reconsider its current European Union (EU) membership is difficult to ignore.  People are talking about it in the newspapers, on the television and radio, between acquaintances and even between strangers (a colleague recently told me of a conversation with another commuter while on the way to work that focused on the impact of EU law on the UK legal system. They had never met before.

An attendee at the premier of Brexit The Movie. Photograph by Chris Bethell

Undoubtedly, this referendum is a big deal.  The last one was in 1975, which means, for many of us, this is a first and probably a one of a kind experience within our lifetime.  Two opposing sides dominate the event.  On the one hand, there is the Brexit campaign, which wants the UK to withdraw its membership of the EU and is predominantly supported by politicians who align themselves with the more radically right within the Conservative party or the more extreme right outside of the Conservative party, such as UKIP.  A key character is Boris Johnson, a Conservative politician and, until recently, the Mayor of London.  On the other, there is the Remain campaign, which wants the UK to retain its EU membership albeit under slightly renegotiated terms.  Key characters here include David Cameron, Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition.  Within each side, economic institutions, cultural entities and commercial bodies across the UK have also been recruited in order to support their position.

I am a firm believer of fashion being political.  Moreover, when we get dressed in the morning, we not only consider our own clothed self but also how it will be received by others we encounter through the day. We anticipate a range of ‘audiences’ that will view and take in our dressed presentations when we decide what to wear each day. However, and perhaps because of the increasing democratisation of fashion production, the opportunity to highlight these relationships between ourselves and our ‘audiences’, to bring into view our own political values, appear to be taken less and less.

Back to the future, Mark Suggitt, Catherine Newley, Jen Kavanagh, Jemma Conway, Museums Journal Issue 116/06, front cover and p20 – 25, 01.06.16

I was reminded of this while reading the most recent Museums Journal, which featured a cover depicting three curators with an interest in social history alongside a range of objects dating back to the 1990s that highlight the role of artefacts in our everyday lives The cover is a recreation of an older one, from 1985, which showed three social history curators with a range of objects highlighting the daily life since the 1950s. While both covers keep the same form, with the people standing behind a table display, what is noticeable different is the attention to clothes and dress.  In the 1985 cover, all three curators have made an effort to dress in clothes representative of previous decades. Yet, in the 2016 cover, none of the curators appear to have made an effort to recreate dress since the 1990s and neither do they mention it in their choice of artefacts.  What a complete shame.

Jeremy Corbyn ‘anti-fashion’ approach to dress

Boris Johnson’s ‘scruffy’ appearance

And yet the absence of any effort to include everyday historical dress does tell us something.  It suggests that not considering your ‘audiences’ when you get dressed and solely focusing on your own self seems to be the most political statement you can make with what you wear.  Take Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron, for example.  All appear to make no concessions about what they wear despite finding themselves in front of a diverse range of ‘audiences’ on a daily basis. Regularly, we are reminded of Johnson’s scruffy appearance or Corbyn’s non-look, yet rarely are we allowed to consider this critically. Elizabeth Wilson, in Adorned in Dreams points out that people are wary to aestheticize politics as this can lead to a situation where style takes precedence over meaning.  However, Wilson argues that this should not signal the end of appropriating dress, fashion, cultural artefacts in general, as a way to underline and promote our individual and collective political ideologies. Rather, we should be aware that this can lead to a dangerous reduction of critical meaning by being allowed to be critical of dress and fashion within a cultural, social and political context.

Margaret Thatcher in 1975 in support of EEC membership

Margaret Thatcher in 1975 in support of EEC membership

So, perhaps that is why the most interesting clothed figure in relation to the referendum is not our current political leaders but a past one who knew all too well the power of dress when it came to the promotion and embodiment of her political values.  Margaret Thatcher, just newly elected as the leader of the Conservative party, supported the Remain campaign in the 1975 referendum.  Wearing a fitted woollen jumper, the front design featured flags representing the nine member states that, then, made up the European Economic Community (EEC) and which, arguably, was an early version of the EU before it officially came into being in 1993. Here, Thatcher is doing a brilliant job of what Wilson describes as the appropriation of cultural artefacts – here that would be the flags and the jumper itself – in order to underline and promote her political ideology.  In the image, Thatcher’s jumper is well supported by the ‘slogan t-shirts’ worn by the two women either side of her.  Interestingly, both the jumper, with its collage of national flags, and the t-shirts, with their printed slogans, speak to the notion of oppositional dress, which Wilson suggests is defined by its ability to “express the dissent or distinctive ideas of a group” (Wilson, 2003: 184).  By 1975, British society had seen its fair share of youth subcultures and countercultures emerge, all with their distinct aesthetic styles. Thatcher and her supporters were adopting strategies of DIY and bricolage in the spirit of both punk and hippy aesthetic styles. She clearly saw what she wore as an opportunity to put forward her political position, acknowledging the importance of her ‘audiences’. I really wish the same could be said of our key politicians involved in what will surely be the UK’s biggest political event for some time to come.


Elizabeth Wilson Adorned in Dreams 2003 I B Tauris & Co Ltd

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.