Last September, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand who announced recently that she was stepping down after almost six years in power, did something government leaders rarely do. She modeled in a fashion show.
Wearing a high-neck cape glimmering with what appeared to be electrified seed pods over a long blue dress and bare feet, she stood on a runway for the opening event of World of Wearable Art, an annual international design competition in Wellington that was restarting after a two-year pandemic hiatus. She looked sort of like an alien priestess from the Marvel cinematic universe, and also like it was no big deal.
Except, of course, it was. And not just because it attracted attention (“What? The PM? Modeling?”) to the reopening of an important economic sector.
Ms. Ardern may have been known on the international stage for many things as a leader, but her wardrobe was rarely among them. She was known, for example, for getting her country successfully through Covid; for her deft handling of a mass shooting at two mosques; for espousing “kindness politics”; for becoming, at 37, one of the youngest prime ministers ever elected in New Zealand; for having a baby while in office; and now, for being one of the rare officials who resigned of their own accord.
Yet throughout her time in office she also always understood that fashion is a political tool — one she wielded so easily and subtly in the service of her agenda that most people didn’t even realize it was happening.
In doing so, she was at the forefront of a new generation of women in politics, including Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, with her leathers and denim, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, with her hoops and red lipstick, all of whom have eschewed the uniform sameness of the women who came before. Those include politicians like Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris (currently taking refuge in a series of dark trouser suits), even Margaret Thatcher, with her pussy bows. Instead, they are crafting their own idiosyncratic leadership style, one that treats the issue of image-making as an opportunity rather than a liability.
One that recognizes in the visual age, it’s as much a part of communications strategy as any official statement, and that “personal appearance” doesn’t just mean showing up.
It’s a pretty significant shift.
For decades, after all, women in politics have been in a defensive crouch when it comes to clothing, seeing it as a banner of gender often used to paint them as superficial and less substantive than their male counterparts. The solution was to adopt — or adapt — the male uniform. To claim, if asked, that they “never think about clothes.” And then to wear pretty much the same thing day in and day out.
From the beginning of her tenure in 2017, though, Ms. Ardern took a different approach. One that weaponized her wardrobe to her own ends rather than letting it be weaponized against her. She used fashion as a form of outreach, not just as a way to support and market local industry (though she did that, too), but as a way to connect with her constituencies on a personal level.
“She proved that women in leadership positions could be approachable,” said Emilia Wickstead, a New Zealand-born designer based in London whose dress Ms. Ardern wore when she visited Boris Johnson on her first trip to Britain since the pandemic began. And she did in part through her clothes.
She wore New Zealand designers almost exclusively from her first election night, when she donned a burgundy jacket and matching shirt by the New Zealand label Maaike. And not just one label: many. (A brief list includes Juliette Hogan, Kate Sylvester, Ingrid Starnes, Karen Walker, Jessica McCormack and Ms. Wickstead.) She wore them when she was photographed for American Vogue; when Meghan Markle chose her for the cover of the British Vogue she guest-edited; and for the cover of Time magazine. She wore a bright pink Juliette Hogan suit on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
And she defined “New Zealand designers” as broadly as possible, wearing a traditional Maori kahu huruhuru feather cape — a symbol of power and respect — to the Commonwealth dinner in Buckingham Palace in 2018, and donning a feather stole for the queen’s funeral in September, custom-made by the Maori designer Kiri Nathan. (She also wore the feather cape for her last official speech to the country, given in honor of the 150th birthday of the prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, the Maori spiritual leader.)
The representation and symbolism, at two major international events that most of the world experienced only in photos, make a clear point.
As it did, perhaps most memorably, when she donned a black head scarf to demonstrate her solidarity with the Muslim community after an Australian gunman shot 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, transforming what was often seen as a lightning rod for public debate and prejudice into a statement of community.
When, last April, Ms. Ardern reopened the borders to Australians as the pandemic eased and showed up at the airport to welcome them, she told a news show that she had deliberately worn a green dress because green and gold are the national colors of Australia. She laughed about it, but that didn’t make it any less revelatory.
Or effective. Indeed, poking fun at her clothes became one of her trademarks. She told The New Yorker in 2018 that she was wearing two pairs of Spanx when she made an appearance on “The Late Show.” In 2020, she posted a close-up of a pink jacket on Instagram with the note, “Why is it only when you are the furtherest you could possibly be from a change of clothes before you notice that you have nappy cream on you?”
After being in Covid isolation, she posted a picture with the caption, “Somehow though I’m still finishing the evening in the same hoodie I’ve been wearing for days.”
For any future student of power studying relatability 101, it should be required reading.