It was in 2002 that Theresa May, Britain’s now-soon-to-be-PM, wore a pair of leopard-print kitten heel shoes that quickly became the most famous footwear in British politics.
Was said kitten heels’ ascendancy to political infamy an example of sexism? In a way, yes.
They are, after all, a pair of shoes—and it is unlikely a male politician would be in any way defined by what he wore unless it was terribly outrageous. Unlikely, but not unknown: in 1981 the beleaguered Labour leader Michael Foot was castigated for wearing a donkey jacket to that year’s Remembrance Day ceremony. It later emerged the jacket was not a donkey jacket, but the sartorial damage was done.
Unfortunately for him, at the advent of an era of focusing on how politicians looked, Foot made anything he wore look shambolic.
May’s leopard print heels were not outrageous, they just seemed to be uncharacteristically trendy footwear for a then-chairman of the Conservative Party.
The speech at that year’s party conference which May wore them was in its own way a landmark, in which May rounded on the perception of the Tory party itself as “nasty.” May wanted a softer, more inclusive image, and attitude to go along with it—a marked shift in tone and policies. And so a landmark speech became defined by a landmark pair of shoes, the first sign of May distinguishing herself, of playing tough, telling it like it is to an audience who may not want to hear it—but hear it they shall.
Perhaps it was leopard print fate, then, that dictated that on Monday, when May not only suddenly became the leader of the Party, following Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the leadership contest, but also the incipient prime minister, that she again was wearing a pair of kitten heels with… yes, a leopard print design. More subtle than 2002, but still there.
Ever since 2002, May’s shoes have inevitably excited comment—especially a pair of black patent leather boots she wore to meet the queen once. Last week came more leopard print kitten heels and a pair of flats with lips printed on them.
May’s fashion flag, such as it is, is worn individually and proudly, with a present lack of sartorial uniformity exhibited by the queen, and May’s sole-other-female prime ministerial predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who shared the same signature accessory: a compact handbag, worn on the crook of the arm.
Thatcher’s formidable political jousting even gave rise to the term “handbagging”—another sexist term to mean a female politician rounding on a male one.
May’s footwear isn’t so obviously loaded with symbolism, except the original kitten heels and today’s, speak of an individual not afraid to stand out, but not stand out too scarily—a hint of surprise, but not enough to frighten the more conservative voters of Middle England; a subtle hint of headmistress and dominatrix to make all those Tory upper- and middle-class voters a little frisky.
May’s voting record reflects the slightly risqué, slightly not, of those 2002 shoes—iron-rod conservative on matters of law and order, and fighting terrorism, while progressive on social issues like marriage equality.
If we read subtle leopard print as a barometer of Theresa May’s canniness, what to make of Angela Eagle’s explosion of pink at the launch of her campaign to be Labour leader, also on Monday? On Twitter, one user said it was like the event had been sponsored by Rimmel London.
The pink here was supposed to connote warmth and inclusion, along with Eagle’s open chat-show friendly smile, and the “Angela” emblazoned across the set, like a daytime talk show—a welcome-all inference sorely lacking, at least visually, in the fraught leadership style of the dourly dressed and expressioned Jeremy Corbyn, whom Eagle is seeking to supplant.
Can you read a lot by a pair of someone’s shoes, or another’s lushly pink stage design? Probably not: they’re ultimately as revealing as a certain other political power player’s pantsuits. But Hillary Clinton knew how to play on the symbolism of those pantsuits, eventually making them (“pantsuit aficionado”) part of her Twitter bio.
It’s unlikely that May’s own Twitter bio will ever deploy “leopard print kitten heels” as playfully as Clinton’s. Currently, it features the far straighter, “Together we can make Britain a country that works for everyone.”
May knows, just as Clinton does, the symbolic power of what she wears—but, also like Clinton, she’s far too clever and astute to ever let it define her. She simply expresses herself as she wishes, and lets the media play its own parlor game around it.
While adversaries, male or female, would be unwise to cross May, it’s unlikely that “kitten-heeling” will ever enter the dictionary as “handbagging” did for Thatcher.