A Brief History Of Politically Controversial Fashion

Published December 20, 2016
Updated December 19, 2016

Carl Court/Getty ImagesThe talk that has always circulated about British Prime Minister Theresa May’s trendy clothes points to something larger: An outfit always means more when it’s being worn by a politician.

Last week, the population of Britain was freaking out over a pair of pants — a pair of $1,250, wide-legged, brown leather pants. And Prime Minister Theresa May had the misfortune of wearing them.

The outcry came so quickly and spread so widely that it even received a name: “Trousergate.”

“I don’t have leather trousers,” former British Education Secretary Nicky Morgan chided. “I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on anything, apart from my wedding dress.”

On the other side of the debate, feminists bemoaned the attention that is routinely paid to female politicians’ clothing choices and not to those of their male counterparts.

When men buy expensive suits — like the $17,000 garments worn by Donald Trump — “they’re praised for supporting a national craft,” the Daily Telegraph’s fashion director wrote.

But as much as some might insist that talk of style doesn’t have a place in the hallowed halls of governing, the two have always been inherently intertwined.

Here are some of the most famous instances of history’s fashion police calling out the people in charge:

Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos
While her corrupt and brutal husband, Ferdinand, ran the Philippines, leaving his citizens hungry and poor, Imelda Marcos mostly shopped.

When protestors stormed the palace in 1986, chasing the couple into exile, they were shocked to discover a 10,000-square-foot walk-in closet, 1,000 gowns, a four-foot high pile of imported underwear, and more than 2,700 pairs of shoes.

Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

Congresswomen in Pants

Women In Pants
As late as the 1990s, women in politics were ridiculed for wearing pants. If they were called onto the Congressional floor unexpectedly, congresswomen were expected to change into a dress quickly before arriving.

In 1993, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun protested by wearing pants to work and encouraging their staffs to do the same.

The dress-code was quickly amended soon after - stipulating that women could wear pants as long as they wore a jacket as well.

I repeat: This was 1993.

Pictured: U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton walks with (from left) Senators Carol Mosley Braun, Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, and Diane Feinstein on March 11, 1993. Their stance on pantsuits helped pave the way for the future presidential candidate's trademark look.
Robert Giroux/AFP/Getty Images

Charles of France

Charles Of France
While Charles VI — otherwise known as "Charles the Mad" — ruled France starting in the late 14th century, he became convinced that he was made of glass.

Scared of shattering, he began wearing heavily padded clothes and refused to be touched.
Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama

Obama Pin
When he first began his presidential campaign, there was something different about Barack Obama's lapels. They were flag-less.

Of course, people were quick to criticize that lack of red, white, and blue. Obama initially responded by saying that he had seen "people wearing a lapel pin but not acting very patriotic...I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe...and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

But as the conversations about the missing pin's meaning continued to swell, it became clear that Obama's beliefs weren't enough. The American people needed a flag pin.

The president now wears one every day.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette
Though many today laud her as one of history's biggest style icons, the young French queen's shopping habit was not as popular at the time.

Indeed, the French were more than a little displeased with their queen's diamond-encrusted gowns, two-foot high model-boat-filled hairstyles, and boredom-inspired habit of wearing nothing twice.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison
Little is remembered about this man aside from his decision not to wear a coat during his two-hour inaugural address (the longest in history).

Though this fashion choice has been blamed for the president catching pneumonia and dying three weeks later, an alternative cause of death has since been put forth.

It is more likely, modern epidemiologists say, that Harrison was killed by an infection caught from the festering, sewer-filled marsh a few blocks away from the White House.

Though this is a decidedly grosser way to go, at least we can stop blaming the poor man's style.
Wikimedia Commons

Melania Trump

Melania Bow
In October, audio was released of Donald Trump suggesting that when a rich and powerful man wants to court women, it's acceptable for him to just "grab them by the p****."

Two days later, Trump's wife, Melania, appeared at the presidential debate wearing a $1,100 fuchsia blouse.

Coincidentally, the actual name of the blouse's style is: "the pussy-bow."
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincoln
While Abraham Lincoln's famous hat went reportedly scuffed and battered, the first presidential wife to be called "first lady" racked up enormous debts buying dresses, gloves, and shoes.

In order to pay them off, she attempted to sell excess manure from the White House and persuade other Republican members of government to give her the money as a sort of "thank you" for their political seats.
Wikimedia Commons

Muammar Gaddafi

Gaddafi Hands Raised
A horrendous fashion sense suited to a horrendous man.

The former ruler of Libya wore everything from leopard print hats to wizard's robes to a military uniform festooned with unearned medals.

Gaddafi's costumes always and intentionally stood in stark contrast to his fellow Libyans, suggesting an opulence that for many in his country simply did not exist.
Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

George Washington

Fake Teeth Washington
There's a myth that the first president's chompers were made of wood. While this is not the case, tooth problems did cause George Washington much unhappiness throughout his adult life.

On the plus side, those same issues might have contributed significantly to the defeat of the British at the battle of Yorktown to effectively end the Revolutionary War.

The British forces had intercepted a private letter from Washington to his dentist stating he would not be in Philadelphia any time soon. And though this greatly embarrassed the general, it also convinced the British that his troops would be staying in the North. They were, therefore, completely caught off guard when Washington and his army arrived in Yorktown, Virginia.
Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

Next, check out the weirdest fashion trends in history. Or, find out which fashion trend caused Victorian women to have to be carried to the beach.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.