Giorgia Meloni and the politics of power dressing


The first female prime minister of Italy wears Armani.

It began in late October, when Giorgia Meloni, founder of the hard-right Brothers of Italy party and leader of the conservative coalition that won the national election, wore three dark Armani pantsuits on the three days of formal transition of power from Mario Draghi’s government to her own. She wore an Armani with a black shirt for her first official photograph with her ministers, an Armani with a white shirt for her handover meeting with Draghi and a navy blue Armani in between. And so it continued.

Meloni wore an Armani suit during a news conference after the first meeting of her Cabinet, when she announced, among other things, new crackdowns on illegal late-night raves. And she appeared in Armani again for her first meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels this month.

She has worn Armani so often in such a relatively short time that, along with her ironed-straight blond bob (which itself has become something of a trend, and catapulted her hairstylist into the public eye), the look is starting to seem like a uniform of the office. One that is both more significant and less obvious than it may at first appear.

More significant because Meloni is redefining the image of Italy for the world, and in that context, every choice matters. That includes the choice to align herself visually with the comfortingly familiar wardrobe of captains of industry and with a brand that is a pillar of the power-dressing establishment — a decision that makes her seem less like a radical change than her often-vitriolic populism, policies and gender may otherwise suggest.

 

Less obvious because not since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and designers began announcing that they would not dress the incoming first lady has the fashion industry had such a publicly conflicted relationship with the elected leadership of a country.

It was in September, when Italians were preparing to go to the polls and Milan Fashion Week was getting into full swing that a number of designers turned to Instagram, urging their followers to vote — for freedom, openness and progress, and against the hard-right stance toward immigration and traditional morality (including opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples) espoused by Meloni’s party.

Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, for example, posted a lengthy statement that read, in part: “I hope that all children from 18 years and older will be ready to vote next Sept. 25, because we do not have to back down a millimeter on acquired rights but above all the times are ripe to acquire new and fundamental ones.”

Then there was Donatella Versace of Versace, who posted a heart in the colors of the Italian flag and wrote, “Vote to protect rights already acquired, thinking about progress and with an eye on the future.”

And then there was Stella Novarino of Stella Jean, who grabbed a microphone after her spring 2023 show last month and exhorted her audience to go to the polls because “when it comes to civil rights and human rights, we are all part of the same party.”

Once it was clear that Meloni’s coalition had won and questions arose about who might dress the new prime minister, no one wanted to talk about it — or publicly volunteer for the job. The head of the Camera della Moda, Italian fashion’s trade body, declined to comment.

This matters because to a certain extent every politician’s wardrobe choices are a statement of intent, an attempt to manipulate the impressions of those around them, be it with rolled-up shirt sleeves to convey getting down to work or white pantsuits to symbolize women’s rights. Meloni comes into office as a disrupter, politically and personally. The eyes of the world are on her, assessing her every move.

Dress, with its ability to tap into a shared popular language, can be both a strategic communications tool and a weapon. The question of how best to wield it is not a frivolous issue or one limited to first ladies, although it is more complicated when it comes to female politicians.

That’s why designers have often played a role in helping officials craft an image that connects to electoral positioning, whether it’s Ralph Lauren working with Hillary Rodham Clinton or Bettina Schoenbach working with Angela Merkel.

But asked about Meloni’s style just after the election, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the Italian artistic director of Dior womenswear, told Milano Finanza Fashion that “it doesn’t seem as though she has a strategy, it seems as though she chooses what she likes. She doesn’t use the language of fashion.”

At least it didn’t seem as if she did during the campaign, when Meloni was known for her affinity for apple green and pastels and often associated with her 2019 declaration “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian.”

Now that she is in office, however, her sartorial choices suggest a different tradition and a notable fluency with the symbolism embedded in clothing.

 

Not for her the fruit-bowl-colored jackets of female political tradition past. Instead, she has adopted the camouflage of the male status quo, even as she represents the opposite. Italy is, of course, a country that has long understood the projection of power — and ideology — through dress. See, for example, the Black Shirts of Mussolini’s fascist party, the ashes of which grew into the political parties within which Meloni was politically born and raised.

“Now that she’s premier, she wants to assert herself through her ideas and her politics,” said Maria Luisa Frisa, a professor of fashion theory and curating at the IUAV University of Venice, so Meloni is wearing a suit “that cannot be criticized.” One that fades into the background but has long been the costume of the Hollywood executive suite, the default option for anyone looking to be taken seriously.

Armani is a recognizable global name and an advertisement for the allure and success of “Made in Italy”; and “Made in Italy” is one of the tentpoles of Meloni’s brand of nationalism. She even created a new ministerial post for “businesses and Made in Italy.” By wearing Armani, Meloni implicitly joins the brand’s power to her own, co-opting it for her own ends.

She bought, literally, into what it represents, walking into an Armani boutique and purchasing her suits with the assistance of a local salesperson, according to a company spokesperson.

The brand had no further comment, and it has not posted photos of Meloni in the suits on its Instagram feed (although it does feature pictures of other public figures, including singer Bruno Mars). Still, in 2017, Giorgio Armani was the designer who, when the fashion world was in extremis over Melania Trump, told WWD that as far as he was concerned, dressing people — no matter whom — is “my job” and that “this goes beyond politics.”

That may be an increasingly hard argument to make.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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