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The Iron Lady: Costume as Distinction, Gender and Protection

The Iron Lady (2011) is a film full of interesting sartorial clues put in place by costume designer Consolata Boyle. While it chooses not to deal in depth with the career of Margaret Thatcher, instead focusing on a story of a sick and lonely old woman remembering a rose tinted past, it certainly employs colour and clothing as indicators of mood, gender, power, emotion and, of course, political allegiance.

The first shot of The Iron Lady depicts an almost unrecognisable Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) buying a pint of milk. She is dressed in a loose fitted beige anorak, beige floral print headscarf and sensible flat shoes; she is the picture of ordinariness, a non-threatening, indescribably average old lady. This first appearance sets up precisely the angle the film is going to adopt; a character drama looking at the sadness of facing old age alone and the despondency of a once powerful leader whose former glory is now entirely bound up in memories. It also instigates some sympathy for Thatcher, for the woman behind the politics, which is necessary to create audience interest, despite its failure to deal with any of the more contentious issues of the “Iron Lady’s” career.

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The story takes the structure of two timelines, one being the present with the aforementioned older Thatcher, the other shows her youth, her rise to power, her heyday, and eventually her fall. The flashback sequences are as a rule much more vibrant and saturated with colour than the present. Costumes especially follow this blueprint, with brighter colours and lively patterns creating a recognisable contrast between two eras. It is not necessary to see the respectively older or younger versions of the characters to realise which time period you are in – the colours say it all. This divergence of palettes demonstrates the state of mind of the present day Thatcher. To her, the past is not just more real, but also more exciting, stimulating and more worthy of her attention. Her illness is presented as an almost wilful attempt to relive a power and responsibility now denied to her.

The young Margaret wears far more colour and patterns, as well as fitted silhouettes which emphasise her youth and energy for life. We see her before her political career in, among others, a paisley pinafore over a navy shirt and a blue and white peter-pan collar shirt under a khaki knitted cardigan, demonstrating her humble beginnings as a grocer’s daughter through the normality of clothing. Patterns are tighter, more definite and vibrant. They imply her as yet un-exercised potential. Even this early on, blue is a key colour. Blue, so linked with the Conservative party, also serves to show a defined gender at all stages of her career; as an inexperienced but determined young woman, a politician at the height of her power and eventually as an older woman, trying to recapture a lost supremacy.

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There are two scenes near the beginning of the film where both the young and the older Margaret attend dinner parties, both dressed in shades of pale blue. While the older’s outfit is less fitted and paler with a loose swirl design, and the younger wears a fitted jacket and skirt suit typical of the 1950s nipped-in waist trend, the similarity between them is impossible to miss. They may be separated by experience but both hold very much the same beliefs, and there is no indication that the older Thatcher’s views have altered in the slightest over her long career. It is interesting to note here that young Margaret is presented to us in this sequence first by her black heeled shoes and back-seam stocking clad legs, then by her hands in black crocheted gloves before we see her face. This technique of introducing a character by significant items of their attire demonstrates the importance of costume; it is possible to tell much about a character and their frame of mind without even seeing their face. This method also creates a desire to see the actor in full, therefore creating a heightened sense of interest in not just the person, but in the scene about to take place.

This use of the colour blue is especially effective when we see Margaret in an overhead shot, walking through parliament, the one shock of colour in a sea of dark suits. Not only does the bright blue of her costume pinpoint her exact location immediately, it underlines the male dominated culture that was characteristic of parliament and society in general at that time. It also shows a civilisation set in certain ways of thinking and acting and, above all, a certain attitude towards women. Whatever violently varied opinions are held about Margaret Thatcher one thing is undeniable, that she did manage to make her way in a world that was very much geared for men and to not only succeed in this world, but to hold considerable influence within it. This use of her gender appropriate clothing as a tool to single her out is repeated in a tracking shot through a mass of men’s brogues to her decorative black and white kitten heels. Once again she is represented as one of a kind.

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One particular scene in the film, also used as a teaser trailer, shows Thatcher being advised on image. During this interview, she is recommended to “lose the pearls”. She replies that “The pearls are absolutely non-negotiable”. This conscious control of her own image manifests itself in careful selection of clothing and accessories that create not just the persona of a successful politician, but which form part of her very identity. The pearls could be seen to represent much about her life – her gender, her children, her divergence from the norm – but it is her dogged determination to have control over her appearance, and through this the way she represents herself, which is most telling.

It is not long before we begin to see a distinct uniform of success manifesting within her dress codes. A smartly tailored two piece suit, pearls, and often a bow-neck blouse are used repeatedly for all scenes which demonstrate her power and position. For the strongest moments among these, she is almost always in the signature cornflower blue. The masculine uniform of power – the suit – is subverted, altered slightly to become as much a signifier of her control as of her dissimilarity from those around her. By contrast, moments of weakness or vulnerability are characterised by a state of undress; in nightwear when involved in a bombing in Ireland and again in nightwear as an old woman losing grip on reality. The link between being properly attired and prepared to face the battle of everyday life as a female, and increasingly unpopular, politician is undeniable. Thatcher’s clothes are vital to maintaining her power, her position and her image.

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The importance of clothing as a form of protection is demonstrated in a scene where she is dressing for an important occasion. A button needs re-sewing and a seamstress is busy at work, thus leaving Thatcher partially exposed while her counsellors disagree with her. She is vulnerable because of the broken clothing; it is a chink in the carefully prepared armour. The argument is interspersed with close ups of the button being sewn back on. Despite the disagreement, she wins the fight, and comments to her seamstress that she has “saved the day again”, thus highlighting the significance of being appropriately equipped sartorially.

The symbolism and sentimentality of attire is again emphasised when the older Thatcher, after remembering the circumstances of her deposition in a moment where she, in her nightdress and dressing gown, watches suited men around a table discuss how she must be made to give up the leadership, finally begins to get rid of her beloved husband’s clothes. She tips over a shoe rack and we watch men’s shoes of every description fall into a heap; she drops piles of carefully stacked shirts to the floor and begins to thrust them into black bin bags. By getting rid of her husband’s clothes she is coming to terms with his death, the realities of her life and the effect of her career. Holding onto his clothes represented an unwillingness to face reality, and as she gets rid of them she releases herself.

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When Thatcher is forced from her position as prime minister, she is shown for the very first time wearing the colour red. Always a strong and deliberate colour choice, the use of such a bold tone at this key moment shows many things. It points to her strong and wilful nature, her willingness to fight and be unpopular if need be. But it also shows her lack of control of this situation that has been forced on her; it is as if she cannot accept defeat yet defeat has come to her anyway. It is a sign of danger. The symbolism of the colour red is reversed to show her fiery nature still burning, but no longer effective or granting her the control she desires.

The Iron Lady is a fascinating film from a costume point of view as it makes real statements through clothing; the use of flashbacks that feel more real than the present is an interesting technique to employ. Costume and colour play an integral part in this. Clothes are not only signifiers of gender and status, but a form of armour, or protection – being properly attired is synonymous with being properly prepared to face the world.

By Bonnie Radcliffe.

You can watch Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady at

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