In recent years, we do seem to have had a conspicuous increase in the number of women in our political institutions but showcasing the presence of a few ancestrally privileged and heavily painted females with designer outfits in our cabinets or legislative chambers is neither gender-mainstreaming nor empowering of women. They only magnify the class divide aggravating the already acute sense of socio-economic despair and deprivation. Their presence in assemblies, conspicuous only through their expensive jewellery, designer outfits and fashion accessories is of no value to our women’s causes.
The problem is that most of them came into the political limelight riding only on their ancestry and influence and are inevitably tempted to brandish their affluence while in high public positions. What most of them don’t seem to realise is that as nominated assembly members and public offices holders, they should have been presenting themselves as an example of austerity and simplicity, eschewing at least in public their ostentatious and lavish lifestyle.
If you are a minster, you should be even more circumspect in your public attire and appearance. You need to be fair to yourself and to your high office giving a touch of sobriety to your outfit and make-up.
They say clothes make the man, and it’s true for women, too. One’s choice of clothing speaks volumes about his or her personality. In the west, they have proper work attire rules and they can also go and check popular fashion-sites or even consult handbooks on what to wear where just to have an idea on their work place wardrobe. But in our society, there are no such rules or guidelines. To be honest, we don’t need any rules or guidelines on what or how to dress up for work if we are mindful of our socio-economic and cultural limits.
For work attire to ensure dignity and civility there are universal donts common to all societies, oriental or western. For example, nowhere at work can you wear trendy clothes, excessive make-up, costly jewellery, fragrance and shoes that one would normally wear at evening galas or night functions. Similarly other items of clothing that should never leave your closet when you’re getting dressed for work include wrinkled or stained clothing, sleeveless or transparent shirts, sweatshirts, joggers, track jackets, shorts, exercise gear or anything resembling lingerie should never see the inside of an office.
In every profession, certain propriety is attached to work dress for both men and women. In some cases, like doctors, teachers, lawyers and judges when at work, white or black gowns are customary if not necessary. Our ministers and public office-holders don’t have to wear uniforms or gowns but as is the practice all over the world, they also don’t have to try out the latest fashion or colour trends in assembly sessions or cabinet meetings. A public figure has to look different from a showbiz personality. Appropriate attire is more demanding for women than men due to unwritten cultural limits and wider variety of clothing available with fast changing fashions almost in every season.
Especially in diplomacy or the business world, instead of strictly following the fashion, the attire has to be adapted to the unwritten rules of proper dress expected of a public position. While men can do with any neat and clean shalwar kameez with a waistcoat or a business suit, women’s clothing in diplomatic and business community has to be carefully selected to match the nature of occasion and, as a rule, it also has to be simple and decent.
For diplomats, male or female, appropriateness of attire is an integral aspect of their performance evaluation. Over-dressed or under-dressed just as too much of glitzy colour or designer accessories would be considered showy and undiplomatic. Perhaps like our civil servants and diplomats, our ministers also need a level of grooming through exposure to the protocol usages and decorum requirements. A short orientation course at the Foreign Service Academy is needed for them.
Only last year, on her maiden visit to Delhi, we saw how our foreign minister’s allegedly colourful attire and extraordinarily elitist fashion accessories including classic pearl jewellery sparked a Bollywood frenzy in the host country affecting her official ‘persona’ and shifting attention from the real issues that she had gone to discuss with her Indian counterpart. Had she been briefed by the Foreign Office on the importance of diplomatic finesse in attire and appearance for a foreign minister she would have been saved of all that criticism heaped on otherwise a graceful-looking Hina Rabbani Khar.
Had she not been a foreign minister, perhaps nobody would have even taken notice of her $15,000 worth Hermes Birkin bag, $500 worth Roberto Cavalli oversized sunglasses and $900 worth Jimmy Choos designer heels. Anyone who has the means for costly outfit can wear whatever fashion accessories he or she likes to look stylish and dashing. In fact, no one has ever questioned how our showbiz ladies or fashion models dress up or what accessories they wear to look attractive. As long as one can afford them, it is nobody’s business to gripe over anyone’s clothing or personal look.
But for a foreign minister, as Ms Khar perhaps now realises, a conservative and neat look has to be of primary importance. Fashion is secondary. In Pakistan, we have had an array of political icons from Fatima Jinnah to Benazir Bhutto but none of them was ever seen making a fashion statement. Political leaders ought to be making political statements. In order to remain elegant and sophisticated, they must avoid overstated looks or extravagance. Diplomats are ambassadors of their countries and have to exemplify the national dignity that they represent and at times they even dress up or choose colours to convey a message.
I remember back in 1998, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright on her visit to Pakistan chose to wear an inappropriately short skirt. In response we presented her a set of Pakistani shalwar kameez which she never wore apparently not to be seen acquiescing to Taliban’s then veil policy in Afghanistan.
The colour as cultural phenomena changes its meaning based on each society and its history. The dress diplomacy also has to veer to culture sensitivity especially in the Muslim world. For example, more recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while on an important visit to the Middle East was not oblivious of dress symbolism in societies where dress for both men and women plays an important role in conveying political message. Ms Clinton wore different colours in her meetings with Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and Armed Forces Chief Field Marshal Tantawi.
In her meeting with the former, she was seen wearing an appropriately conservative black trouser suit, whereas with Marshal Tantawi she wore a green dress. Interestingly, later when she met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she was wearing a white dress. One may normally not read too much in colour diplomacy but colour does mean different things to different people. Clinton’s dress colour selection on each occasion was guided less by fashion, more by the nature of occasion and environment.
On a lighter note, India’s Foreign Minister Krishna also changes the shade of his wig depending who his interlocutor is. It is ‘wig diplomacy’ in his case. Likewise, during General Zia’s era, black sherwani-clad Pakistani diplomats at the UN, me included, were often teased as ‘penguin diplomats.’ So appearance in public life does matter and always gets noticed.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org