LONDON — Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May takes up her post today in what promises to be a new era flush with tension, tough negotiations — and flashes of leopard print.
May, the second woman — after Margaret Thatcher — to hold the top post, is known among her parliamentary colleagues as a steady pair of hands, puritanical to her fingertips (she’s the daughter of an Anglican vicar), and an unapologetic lover of fashion.
The 59-year-old Conservative, most recently Britain’s home secretary and the woman charged with negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, possesses a snappy wardrobe and stacks of statement shoes — kitten heels, embellished flats, over-the-knee boots and Union Jack trainers.
She wore Roland Mouret’s zip-back “Bitzer” dress to the Conservative Party conference in September and has a closet full of Vivienne Westwood trouser suits and dresses. Her handbags hail from Anya Hindmarch (a fellow Conservative), Longchamp and Orla Kiely, and she favors British high-street brands Russell & Bromley, L.K. Bennett and Clarks for shoes.
Two years ago, May told the long-running BBC radio program “Desert Island Discs” that if she were a castaway, her one luxury would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue, while her one book would be “Pride and Prejudice.”
Last October, during a speech at the Women in the World summit, she said: “I like clothes and I like shoes. One of the challenges for women in the workplace is to be ourselves, and I say you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes.”
Last year, the novelist Allison Pearson, chief interviewer and columnist at the Daily Telegraph, described May in the Mouret Bitzer dress at the Conservative conference: “The look was Carmelite mother superior switches career to high-class escort, styled by Victoria Beckham. Mrs. May entered her 60th year exactly a week ago, and she has never looked better. There is evidence she has been refining her image with a bid for the party leadership in mind.”
A member of parliament since 1997, May’s personal style has clearly blossomed over the decades. Her silhouettes are slim and fitted, from the cognac leather jacket to the bright, monochrome dresses and coats. She relies on accessories to make the look — navy suits are inevitably paired with leopard or zebra print shoes or gloves, and she’ll jazz up a black dress with red knee-high suede boots and a matching mock-croc handbag.
With her windswept blonde-gray bob, a bit of black eyeliner and a perpetual spring in her step, she’s cutting a swathe through Westminster which, like Capitol Hill, isn’t exactly teeming with style mavens. Even Thatcher was far from a fashion plate, favoring staid Aquascutum suits and her famous Maggie Launer handbag, which she wielded more like a weapon than an accessory.
At best, female MPs favor frumpy suits and sensible haircuts. At worst, they try to make statements with garish colors. On Monday, the Labour MP Angela Eagle declared her intention to become leader of the party dressed in a bubblegum pink jacket and black scoop neck top and trousers. She looked like an extra from “Grease.”
Once May’s fabulous suit of armor is on, she gets down to business. Known as a tough negotiator, a micro-manager and hard worker, she’s also been described by Ken Clarke, the conservative politician, as a “bloody difficult” woman. In typical style, she embraced the slur, saying Britain needs more “bloody difficult women.” After all, she’s the heir to Thatcher’s Iron Lady.
Indeed, both May and Thatcher come from middle class stock — rather than the upper-class echelons of former PM David Cameron and his crew — and both were educated at Oxford. May met her husband of 36 years, Philip May, at a Tory disco party there. (The two were introduced by fellow student, the late Benazir Bhutto, who would become prime minister of Pakistan that was assassinated in 2007.)
But while May is certainly poised to be as tough as Thatcher, the two would most certainly disagree on more than a few issues.
Socially progressive — May voted in favor of Britain’s same-sex marriage in 2013, and outlawed plans for national identity cards in order to protect people’s privacy — she’s pro-business but wants to halt runaway capitalism.
“We need a strong, new and positive vision for the future of our country,” she said earlier this week. “A vision of a country that works not for the privileged few, but works for every one of us. Because we’re going to give people more control over their lives. That’s how together we will build a better Britain.”
As prime minister, her priority will be to usher Britain out of the European Union and negotiate a host of new trade agreements with Europe and the rest of the world. May actually voted to remain part of the EU, along with her predecessor Cameron. She was the Conservative Party favorite to be prime minister but didn’t nab the role until her pro-Brexit rival Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the race on Monday.
May has already set out a social-minded agenda, vowing to curb executive pay; put low-ranking workers on corporate boards, and champion the ordinary folk who feel they’ve been left behind in Britain’s boom years, which dumped disproportionate amounts of money into the pockets of London bankers and financial players.
As home secretary, May has also fought to keep immigration under control (something Thatcher would have also strongly favored), telling the Conservative Party conference last year: “We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further [as a result of immigration] while some people are forced out of work altogether.”
Now, 26 years after Thatcher stepped down, another woman has become the U.K.’s prime minister. Thatcher’s decisiveness and Iron Lady-demeanor spurred Britain to an economic boom that lasted more than two decades and raised the nation’s profile worldwide, not just politically but in fashion, the arts and more. It turned her into a political icon — albeit a divisive one — who would lead the country for 11 years and create a movement, Thatcherism.
Just like her female predecessor, May becomes prime minister at a time when the country faces immense challenges — not simply Brexit and the divisions it left, but also huge income disparity between the north and south of the country; skyrocketing housing costs in London; an aging infrastructure and National Health Service, and how to maintain Britain’s place in global affairs once it no longer is part of the EU.
Thatcher had her handbags to help her maneuver through all the issues, while May has her kitten heels and boots. Will she be able to stride through it all, and spawn a movement of her own — Mayism?