Menu
Wed, 12 June 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

How MPs are styling themselves into a general election

(Alamy)

10 min read

As Westminster gets ready for its close-up with a general election approaching, Tali Fraser finds out who is doing what to get their ‘glow up’

Have you noticed someone elevating their style? Getting a fancy new hairdo? Losing weight? In Westminster it likely means one of two things: they are on leadership manoeuvres, or a general election is approaching and they mean business. 

For some, both are reasons to pay additional care to appearances. 

“Generally, the tell-tale sign in men is weight loss and the whole idea that they are mean, lean, campaigning machines. With women you see a bit of a style upgrade because they already have a pretty high bar, but they start kicking things up a notch,” a former Downing Street aide says. 

Political styling is as old as politics itself. Anthony Eden was so au fait with Savile Row that he was apparently known to the tailors simply as “Eden”, while the first female MP Nancy Astor’s approach was to eschew fashion – and try to enforce her take on other female politicians such as Labour firebrand ‘red’ Ellen Wilkinson who loved colourful clothing. 

Barbara Follett famously dispensed advice to the cohort of incoming female Labour MPs in 1997. Her wisdom, revolutionary at the time, was to establish whether warm or cool undertones were most flattering. 

During David Cameron’s years in No 10 he employed the services of now brand consultant, then special adviser, Isabel Spearman, who offered styling advice to Samantha Cameron – and, having been spotted heading into Downing Street this time last year, is rumoured to have been consulting the Prime Minister’s wife Akshata Murty. 

But what exactly are today’s politicians looking for? 

Rishi Sunak’s look fits with his life before politics, though he has been forced to defend his stylistic choices from numerous critics. Despite spending £3,500 on a suit from the prestigious tailor Henry Herbert, many say that his ‘ankle-grazer’ trousers look too short. 

But Sunak insists he just doesn’t like “lots of baggy stuff” at the bottom of his leg – and his tailor has come to his defence. 

The Prime Minister recently apologised for the brand damage he did to the trendy Adidas Sambas when he wore a box-fresh pair of the gum-soled plimsoll in an Instagram interview he gave to promote his National Insurance cut. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer exploited the row and tried to establish his own authenticity by wearing a pair of Adidas Gazelles to the England football team’s training grounds. 

“These are not Sunak-style, these are my old Gazelles,” he said. “This is because you’ll see no end of politicians in suit and tie walking on to a football pitch and trying to play football with ordinary shoes on. It doesn’t work. If I’m coming to the playing ground, I’m going to wear something that I can actually kick a ball with.” 

It is Starmer’s dressed-down outfits that garner him the most fashion critiques: a uniform of bomber jackets, gilets and chambray, often paired with white-soled trainers – aka a ‘centrist dad’ wardrobe.  

As ever, the tricky thing is MPs trying to look normal

“MPs find themselves under the spotlight day in, day out. Selecting a ‘uniform’ that makes them feel comfortable cuts out any unnecessary drama – in many ways it is choosing a protective shield to go into battle,” says digital and communications consultant Laura Dunn, who used to run a political fashion blog. 

Starmer recently changed his glasses from a thin titanium pair from Danish-designed luxury brand Lindberg – for the “sophisticated minimalist who puts impeccable design and quality above all else” – to a brown rounded pair from Garrett Leight Hampton, branded a “fusion of California cool and timeless design”. 

A former Downing Street aide adds: “As ever, the tricky thing is MPs trying to look normal. Most MPs are going to try and look like they fit in with their constituency, wherever that is, but it can all end up looking a bit awkward. The aim when you’re out on the doorstep or looking at potholes is to blend in. Raincoat, chinos and a blue shirt, inoffensive, or if you’re a woman looking like someone a voter would leave their children with.” 

Styling tips are included in briefing notes for No10 events. In one recent trip it recommended that Sunak wear his black coat with a plain white shirt and specified that it be rolled up. 

It’s a tried-and-tested political style trick: shrug off the jacket and roll up the sleeves and suddenly you’re any ordinary man. 

Former United States president Barack Obama perfected the sleeve roll and, with his preppy style, almost always got it right. 

There were attempts by Boris Johnson’s team to style him, but nothing ever happened, because it was part of his brand. Like Vote Leave itself, the branding was deliberately a bit ugly because it wasn’t meant to look glossy. A former aide recalls Johnson artfully messing his hair and loosening his tie knot before taking to the stage.  

It is not just the leaders of the political parties that have to think about what they are wearing. The spotlight falls on their partners, too. 

Victoria Starmer, an NHS occupational healthworker, has not made many forays into the public eye but the few she has done have landed well. At the most recent party conference in Liverpool she wore a Labour-red, belted dress from British brand Edeline Lee. 

(Alamy)
(Alamy)

Retailing at £1,200, the ‘Dada dress’ was loaned to the political spouse by the brand. 

“We lent that to her, it was a sample,” the designer Lee says. “She looked beautiful, it was perfectly appropriate and wonderful for that occasion, so it was great fun for us to dress her. I think it was a really special moment for them, so I was really pleased about that. Of course, we dress across all political stripes!” 

Although she dressed Starmer in a classic Labour red, Lee would encourage politicians to broaden their horizons from their party colours: “They don’t do it as much in the US. It’s an interesting thing… but there are a lot of colours other than blue or red, and a lot of shades in between.” 

Her top tip for politicians who are running around from one event to another, in different climates, sitting and standing to make speeches, is to focus on the textiles: “Do a scrunch test to make sure you don’t end up with those creases on your bottom! And make sure it is mid-weight so you can just wear them in any season.” 

Akshata Murty has a background in fashion. In 2010, she launched an eponymous label aimed at bringing Indian designers to a global market while paying the artisans a fair wage, but the company struggled and closed after a short period. Friends have spoken about her being most comfortable with a pair of dressmaking scissors in hand, cutting and making patterns at home. 

Last year, she was spotted wearing a pair of £570 JW Anderson mules, known for their oversized gold chains. After some criticism, it was revealed to the press that Murty (estimated worth £700m) had bought them on sale from Net-a-Porter (she’s said to be a big sales shopper and enjoys shopping on discount designer site The Outnet). 

At the last Conservative Party conference, she went for a bold £875 trouser suit from British label The Fold. It’s a brand favoured by a number of Conservative women: Liz Truss wore the same £225 navy Arlington dress from The Fold to both start and end her 45 days as prime minister. 

(Alamy)
(Alamy)

But it has become tricky not to copy colleagues, with Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt all shopping at The Fold – and no one wants there to be any competition of who wore it best. Each is known to make an effort when flicking through the racks at their Belgravia store to ensure there is no copying. 

Conservative women have long been offered styling advice by the Tory group Women2Win, co-founded by Theresa May and Baroness Jenkin, which encourages women to stand for parliament. Women2Win has previously hosted events with LK Bennett, where female MPs get 20 per cent off their shopping. It has also organised for candidates to get their ‘colours done’ – where consultants analyse the best colours for an individual to wear, based on hair, eye and skin tone. 

If they dressed too formally, they were called sexless bluestockings

But the offer is not always appreciated. The Sun on Sunday reported that the Conservative London mayoral candidate Susan Hall told Women2Win to “sod off” after it suggested a make-over when she was selected. 

“I was so bloody mad I can’t begin to tell you. I really was livid. Women shouldn’t treat other women like that. I can’t tell you how cross I was,” she told the newspaper. 

Some politicians actively seek out advice. Image consultant Francesca Cairns did former prime minister Theresa May’s colour chart after she made an appointment alongside a friend (Cairns’ store is in May’s constituency). It turns out she is a winter palette, which means cool and vibrant colours work best. 

“I do see a lot of her in bright blues and the cobalt blues and it really enhances her features,” Cairns says. “I’ve definitely seen a slight shift but I think she dressed really well from the start. I think it has really helped though; it’s a confidence thing.” 

Mordaunt, who used to wear jewel tones, is thought to be receiving style advice from public relations consultant Chris Lewis, who has suggested she only wear navy to be taken more seriously. 

It is not just clothing that politicians are conscious of, it is hair and make-up, too. One former adviser tells me that before doing the media round, certain MPs will make sure they get professional make-up done that day: “You can notice. It’s like ‘oh, you’ve been to the MAC counter’ but it is still a subtle choice to position yourself.” 

Much is made of Mordaunt’s perfectly coiffed, almost Scandi-looking, blow-dry. She makes a visit to the parliamentary hairdressers every Thursday morning before her appearance in the Commons Chamber for business questions. 

Mordaunt is not alone. Politicians of all stripes attend the parliamentary hairdresser, many getting a blow-dry ahead of asking a question at PMQs or a big intervention. People go so often that they have even started doing package deals, 12 for the price of 10. 

Although it does not come close to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher who visited the hairdresser 120 times in 1984 – once every three days – to maintain her immaculately coiffed hair. Labour’s Barbara Castle would make twice weekly trips to the hairdressers. 

In her book Women of Westminster, Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the first women who were elected to parliament faced a dilemma: “If they dressed too formally, they were called sexless bluestockings; if they wore eye-catching or feminine outfits, they were trivialised and condescended to.” 

Arguably, times haven’t changed. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner came under fire from within her own party over her sartorial choices. In a visit to Hartlepool during the 2021 by-election, fellow Labour MP Jim McMahon, who ran the campaign, reportedly complained to the leader’s office that Rayner had “dressed inappropriately” by wearing leopard-print trousers, stomper boots and a hoodie. Rayner’s team were said to have “hit the roof” and McMahon’s allies denied he had made disparaging comments. 

Labour’s deputy leader takes a real interest in her outfits. Fond of a bold shoe, she caused controversy after becoming so incensed at missing out on a limited-edition pair of Star Wars shoes from the brand Irregular Choice that she complained on Commons-headed notepaper.  

Although Rayner has stuck to her long tresses, there seems to be form for the Labour bob: a serious haircut embraced by Rachel Reeves and Bridget Phillipson.  

One former Tory adviser says a haircut alone can be a sign of what is to come in a general election: “We should have known there would have been trouble in 2017, the moment Theresa May’s terrible ‘mushroom’ hairdo was unveiled. Talk about a talisman for the whole thing.”

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Tali Fraser - Tory Women Hit Out At "Boys Club" Candidate Selection