Theresa Kahlo: Fashion and the political

Miriam Balanescu 19 October 2017

At a time when British politics has been injected with capitalist versus socialist debates left, right and centre, we can look at the presentation of these polarisations in both a leader’s policies and their pantsuits. Under the harsh critique of the public eye and fellow party members, Theresa May is under a lot of pressure in the way she dresses.

Spanning back through history, fashion and materialised objects are integral to political activism and vice versa: think Black Panthers and the Beret; the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and the Headscarf; Evo Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president- refusing to conform to the suit and tie vibe expected to prevent “selling out” his integral identity and disenfranchising voters.

Theresa May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet does not fall in to this line of fashion statements. Why? Because Theresa May is not a revolutionary. She does not fight for inclusion and equity. She has not been systematically and violently oppressed, nor does she speak for those that have. She is not surrounded by people who are revolutionising politics and battling to get their voices heard: she is the leader of a party that still, despite denials, are misogynistic, oppressive, racist to name a few. And wearing a bracelet emblazoned with perhaps the world’s most recognisable female revolutionary does not brainwash the public into thinking that. It would be like Trump wearing an NWA hat to hide his catastrophic receding hairline whilst condoning systematic police brutality.

So why on earth would May choose this? Maybe it was May’s stylist in an act of sabotage. Or maybe, as succinctly pointed out by Deborah Shaw writing for the Independent, it is the commodified vision of Kahlo that May is relating to. Kahlo’s “market-derived” identity follows much the same of Che Guevara, where their faces stand for struggle and “triumph over adversity”, making their radical politics and ideologies more palatable for the globalised audience. They have become trendy: “look at me, I’m so liberal” with my Kahlo phone case and my Che poster. Yes, Kahlo is accessible and iconic, rightly so, but her aesthetic often outshines her ideologies. Is May appropriating the commodified Kahlo as an emblem for her own struggles within her own party whilst reaching the top and attempting to remain there? If so, she is ignoring the sweet irony that Kahlo strongly identified and advocated violent communism.

Frida Kahlo spent her life concerned with the plight of the impoverished, nationalism, identity politics, LQBTQ+ rights before awareness of this had grown, exercised sexual freedoms and believed in classless societies. When has May ever fought for this? She has voted against LQBTQ+ rights and Equality Acts surrounding sexual orientation, voted repeatedly for the reduction of benefits in turn perpetuating the hugely class-divided society that members of her party refuse to accept exists, and voted to remove duties on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to develop a society where individuals are not limited by prejudice and discrimination.

Yes, Theresa May is the second female prime minister this country has ever had, and yes that is quite a feat. Yes, she represents women when she sits opposite a vile misogynist in the White House. However, a rich, white, privileged woman climbing up to the top of the ivory tower who then uses her position of power to perpetuate an oppressive society is not a feminist. To be a feminist, to be a revolutionary, systems that are currently in place need to be dismantled. We need action.

Wearing a tacky plastic bracelet of a commodified and toned-down image of a feminist hero in the vain hope that you internalise some of her history does nothing for us. Frankly, it’s quite insulting.

Revolutionaries are not just an ~aesthetic~, they are fighters.