Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wearing What We Mean


In the United Kingdom, this time of year is known for two things: the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and the season of party political conferences. Leaving John Keats’s description of autumn to one side, in fairness, the UK has had a lot going on recently. Over the summer: a dramatic vote to leave the European Union, seismic changes to our political leadership across a number of parties and at the very top of our government, a change of Prime Minster (another woman no less!). In addition, as I write this, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have returned this week with their family after a very successful tour of Canada, and so I am prompted to revisit the topic of the meaning of our choice of clothing. Why? Because what we wear says something – whether we like it or not.

So let’s go back to politics for a moment. On Sunday 2nd October 2016, one day after her 60th birthday, Teresa May stood up to give her first conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, and Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. A tough ask for anyone in her shoes, (which I’ll come back to in a moment), but particularly given the growing calls in the UK for clarity on when steps will be taken, to start to extricate the country from the rest of Europe and by so doing, move away from more than 40 years of legislative, commercial, economic and political entanglement. May needed to be clear, decisive, inspiring, inclusive, determined and collaborative. On top of all that – she needed to nail what she wore. In the end our Prime Minister chose a black trouser suit ('I’m a serious leader in a political world dominated by men'), accessorised with quite a fierce, chunky belt and bangle (but I’m not a man and I can assert my femininity and my individuality), pearls (a classic, feminine touch), and then velvet slippers. At first read of the last sentence you may be forgiven for
thinking: ‘what?!!!” Hold on a mere moment. Velvet slip-on shoes are very in vogue at the moment and Mrs May has a penchant for following fashion. She also has a reputation for being a hard worker, not very flashy, diligent, serious and earnest. Not necessarily bad qualities for a politician, but let’s get back to the shoes. Velvet as a fabric is soft and appealing to the touch and slip ons - or slippers – says casual, approachable, relaxed, ‘one of us’. But there was a detail to these shoes that cannot be mistaken. There were steel toe caps to these slippers. Yes, Teresa May wanted to convey warmth and approachability, but at the same time it’s clear that she was saying ‘Don’t. Mess. With. Me.’

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge brought their cherubic children with them on an eight day tour of Canada. Everything they wore was scrutinised for symbolism, relevance and – given the relentless number of photos taken of them – the visual aesthetic. The choice of colours for the Duchess’s outfit (a nod to the Canadian flag when she wore red and white, the maple leaf brooch which was a gift originally given to the Queen etc.) all drove acres of media coverage. When the children appeared, they were colour co-ordinated with their parents to convey family, love, aspiration, youth, the future, adorable, inspiring, in touch, the Monarchy etc. Royal tours create a vast amount of commercial and economic opportunity for both countries, as well as encouraging considerable debate, enhanced education and greater awareness of social, charitable and philanthropic interests which are close to their hearts. We cannot kid ourselves into believing that months of preparation and discussion DOES NOT go into finalising what they wear and wearing what they mean.

As leaders in business, we all have a visual signature. What we wear means something and the question is: do we convey the message that we want the world to get about us? Or do we think it doesn’t matter? Or do we simply never think about it? Whatever group you fall into, let’s be clear, leaders with ‘Executive Presence’ put consistency, intention and alignment in their look in order to support and convey their ‘brand’. Get it right; and we notice the person. Get it wrong and we notice the clothes.