Rosemary McLeod: Ambition and stilletos don't mix

By Rosemary McLeod

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Helen Clark pioneered the pant suit for top girls, once greeting the Queen dressed like a pantomime prince.
Helen Clark pioneered the pant suit for top girls, once greeting the Queen dressed like a pantomime prince.

How flattering of Hillary Clinton to borrow fashion tips from Helen Clark while they both audition for top jobs.

It was Prime Minister Clark who pioneered the pant suit for top girls, once greeting the Queen, radiant in the usual tasteful brocade and diamonds, dressed like a pantomime prince. The Queen is allowed bling and ball gowns; it's in her job description; but top political girls need to look genderless. It annoys men less, and if their bums look broad under short jackets it's a small price to pay for power.

British Prime Minister Theresa May flashed cleavage in her hour of triumph, but people prefer not to think about the cleavages of post-menopausal women. That's why the twinset was invented, with pearls on top to keep bosoms down. Older women wear sensible shoes, too. High heels may tuck the bottom in and up, but nobody's interested in their bottoms, and could anyone take a head of state who teetered on high stilettos seriously? One's self-presentation is of strategic importance at the top.

Like Clark, Clinton sports a hairdo that's a not-do. It needs a hairdresser to keep it frumpy enough, and she never travels without one. Her hairdresser says, "I never want her [Clinton's] hair to be an issue," and stops just short of adding a hairclip to one side, the plain girl's fall-back. What a treasure she is. Big hair and Hillary would be such a mismatch.

Helen has just never bothered about her hair. She probably shuts her eyes while her secretary snips it with hedge clippers.

Jewellery doesn't figure in Clark or Clinton's power bids, unless it's so subtle you barely see it. Conspicuous bling suggests you're trying, and men - if it's their attention you want - don't look on older women as worth the effort.

Americans are all about the teeth. The Obamas' are perfect, and Clinton's have been worked on: we wear them down as we age, otherwise, and they turn nasty shades of off-white. That couldn't be tolerated in a female president.

She may need to be a little frumpy, but cosmetic dentistry is basic American maintenance. Clark's teeth are best left unmentioned. The helpful hints cut only one way.

Blurry gender messages put out by older women seeking power are one thing; they're about not being titillating, and accepting what inevitably goes with the territory.

Men are different. They don't admit they're getting old despite the general gender blurriness of age, which explains the fashion for chin stubble among men in public life who now want to declare that they're hairy in one place, even if they no longer are in others. Simon Cowell of Britain's Got Talent is a prime example.

But who wants to kiss nailbrushes? And what does this mean when men are waxing their body hair everywhere else?

If it's a big deal when women don't shave their legs; that hair is soft, at least; why isn't it when men can't be arsed shaving their chins?

As one New Zealander - Clark - proves herself useful in the corridors of power, another one-time Kiwi, Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts, proves dim-witted. The executive chairman of Saatchi's earns more than $2 million a year, which he seemed to feel qualified him this week to speak on gender diversity in the company and claim the debate was over. Over? More likely it has yet to hit full stride: there's fashion in thought just as much as in dress and grooming.

A list of the world's highest-paid 17 people in advertising, compiled last year, included Roberts.

That was no surprise: they were mostly white men, with just one woman. His explanation for the lack of gender balance would be because, as he puts it, women's "is not a vertical ambition". How we love an ageing white man saying what we think. It was the voice of the increasingly distant past, a backward step when fashion and advertising have to be au courant.

Roberts has been placed on embarrassment leave by Saatchi's parent company, which has apologised for his odd outburst. Hopefully he'll now find the time to contemplate the career trajectories of May, Clark and Clinton, and challenge himself to fit them into his interesting theory.

- Rosemary McLeod is a journalist and author.

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