In a newspaper article in January 1975, Margaret Thatcher described private property as “one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom”. So it seems appropriate that her handbags, suits and necklaces will be sold for cold, hard cash to the highest bidder, rather than being saved for the nation.
But is the VA right to have turned them down? The museum’s somewhat steely statement argued that Thatcher’s wardrobe falls outside its remit of “fashionable dress”. The clothes, say the museum directors, do not warrant a place in the collection because, while they have social-historical significance, they are not of intrinsic aesthetic value. Instead, an auction at Christie’s next month will see well-known pieces from Thatcher’s wardrobe go on sale. Highlights will include a royal-blue double-breasted Aquascutum skirt suit with gold buttons from her time as PM, and her midnight-blue wedding outfit, complete with matching velvet muff and ostrich feather-trimmed cap, which was said to have been inspired by Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The wedding outfit is expected to attract bids around £10,000, with minor pieces in the sale starting at £200.
Thatcher never aspired to be a fashion plate, as she might have phrased it. Her mantra for dressing – “never flashy, just appropriate” – made it crystal clear that she did not dress for the joy of wearing beautiful clothes. No lover of design for its own sake, Thatcher doesn’t necessarily belong among the aesthetic purists who make up the VA’s hardcore fans.
But fashion is broader than pure aesthetics. Thatcher’s look may never have been fashionable, but it was enormously effective as a tool for projecting power and influence. She was an early adopter of simple sartorial diplomacy: she wore Tory-blue skirt suits on many key occasions – including her first Downing Street photocall as prime minister – and knew to choose red (a lucky colour for the country) for an official visit to China as far back as 1982.
But what is most striking about Thatcher’s clothes is how effectively they constructed and consolidated her brand several decades before the notion of having a personal brand even existed. Thatcher’s image was so strong that her look is almost indivisible in the public mind from her actions. Pussy-bow blouses are spliced with milk-snatching, boxy handbags with the miners’ strike. She was no style icon, but she was a gifted image-maker and clothes paid a key part in this. The daughter of a dressmaker, she cared about tailoring. Aquascutum employees of her era recall how minutely particular she was about the shape of the shoulders on her coats and jackets.
Has the VA rejected Thatcher because she is not – and never will be – cool? Two years ago, the museum deviated from its conventional remit to stage a huge exhibition about David Bowie. That exhibition was as much about social and cultural changes as it was about pure aesthetics. But the museum would argue that Bowie is, himself, a fashion icon – after all, the Aladdin Sane lightning streak was reproduced, on Kate Moss, as a Vogue cover.
Margaret Thatcher left a lasting legacy on fashion by fusing femininity with power dressing. This was entirely deliberate. (She once said she wore pussy-bow blouses when making speeches for their “softening” effect.) Think of her riding a Nato tank, in a cream Aquascutum trench and ivory silk headscarf, like a figurehead at the prow of a ship. (That coat and headscarf will be auctioned together in the forthcoming Christie’s sale, in a lot expected to fetch £10,000-£20,000.) These sartorial tactics were entirely lacking in subtletly – and it is perhaps this lack of refinement and sophistication that, in the end, has excluded her from the VA.