Margaret Thatcher: Not Stylish Enough For the Victoria and Albert

Margaret Thatcher stopped Britain’s slide into poverty and irrelevance, and the British Left has never forgiven her. So when someone–her heirs or estate, I assume–offered a collection of her clothing to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which has a huge fashion collection and has often exhibited various sorts of clothes, the V&A declined:

A range of items that belonged to Margaret Thatcher are to be sold at auction after the Victoria and Albert museum turned down an offer to exhibit her clothes.

Dresses, jewellery and handbags which became synonymous with the late prime minster’s public persona are to be sold off in the auction by Christie’s next month.

The V&A, which has one of the largest fashion collections in the world and has enjoyed particular success in recent years with exhibitions such as the one featuring clothing worn by David Bowie, confirmed on Monday that it had been offered items from Thatcher’s wardrobe.

It said in a statement: “The V&A politely declined the offer of Baroness Thatcher’s clothes, feeling that these records of Britain’s political history were best suited to another collection which would focus on their intrinsic social historical value.

“The museum is responsible for chronicling fashionable dress and its collecting policy tends to focus on acquiring examples of outstanding aesthetic or technical quality.”

Which surely leaves out Baroness Thatcher.


Jess Cartner-Morley, the fashion editor at the far-left Guardian–it is a sign of the times that the more or less Communist paper has a fashion editor–elaborated on why it would be inappropriate for the V&A to display some of Thatcher’s iconic clothing:

In a newspaper article in January 1975, Margaret Thatcher described private property as “one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom”.

As it obviously is. Kind of hard to have individual freedom without private property. But this is evidently a controversial proposition at the Guardian. Still, you have to give Ms. Cartner-Morley credit for getting to the point right off the bat.

So it seems appropriate that her handbags, suits and necklaces will be sold for cold, hard cash to the highest bidder, rather than being saved for the nation.

I see. So only socialists should have their possessions, however historic, exhibited in museums. That is, I think, exactly what she means. But what follows is an argument for the historical value of Thatcher’s style sense:

[W]hat is most striking about Thatcher’s clothes is how effectively they constructed and consolidated her brand several decades before the notion of having a personal brand even existed. Thatcher’s image was so strong that her look is almost indivisible in the public mind from her actions. Pussy-bow blouses are spliced with milk-snatching [Ed.: I have absolutely no idea what that means.], boxy handbags with the miners’ strike. She was no style icon, but she was a gifted image-maker and clothes paid a key part in this. The daughter of a dressmaker, she cared about tailoring. Aquascutum employees of her era recall how minutely particular she was about the shape of the shoulders on her coats and jackets.


So what’s the problem? Other than the fact that Thatcher was a Conservative, of course:

Has the V&A rejected Thatcher because she is not – and never will be – cool?

Speak for yourself, Jess.

Two years ago, the museum deviated from its conventional remit to stage a huge exhibition about David Bowie. That exhibition was as much about social and cultural changes as it was about pure aesthetics. But the museum would argue that Bowie is, himself, a fashion icon – after all, the Aladdin Sane lightning streak was reproduced, on Kate Moss, as a Vogue cover.


So, yeah, it makes perfect sense that British taxpayers should pay for a David Bowie exhibit. How could Baroness Thatcher measure up to such a high standard?

Margaret Thatcher left a lasting legacy on fashion by fusing femininity with power dressing. This was entirely deliberate. (She once said she wore pussy-bow blouses when making speeches for their “softening” effect.) Think of her riding a Nato tank, in a cream Aquascutum trench and ivory silk headscarf, like a figurehead at the prow of a ship. (That coat and headscarf will be auctioned together in the forthcoming Christie’s sale, in a lot expected to fetch £10,000-£20,000.) These sartorial tactics were entirely lacking in subtletly – and it is perhaps this lack of refinement and sophistication that, in the end, has excluded her from the V&A.

While she may have been several million times as important, I can certainly see that she doesn’t have the refinement and sophistication of, say, David Bowie. It would be interesting to know how many rock critics, in the days when Bowie was performing, described him as refined.

Monty Python popularized the concept of the upper-class twit. That appellation fits, pretty well, the British leftists who carry on their endless rear-guard action against England’s longest-serving Prime Minister ever, and her best since Winston Churchill.

Margaret Thatcher, age 26, getting married in a blue gown modeled on Gainsborough's portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire

Margaret Thatcher, age 26, getting married in a blue gown modeled on Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire

Today’s reports indicate that, following a conservative backlash, the Victoria & Albert is re-thinking its decision to spurn the offer by Mrs. Thatcher’s heirs.