Thursday, May 3, 2018

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Blindness to the Politics of Appearance

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had what could only be described as a ‘Melania Trump moment’ when he visited Wexford, the ‘worst-hit’ county in the aftermath of Storm Emma on March 10—affectionately known as the Beast from the East. The Taoiseach’s decision to sport a jacket by French lifestyle brand Moncler echoed First Lady Melania Trump’s selection of stiletto heels when visiting the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

The jacket drew ire from many commentators who lambasted his shortsighted sartorial selection.  Meeting those whose lives had been disrupted in a designer jacket highlighted himself as wealthy, unaffected by the strife of the people. A Moncler jacket from retailer Brown Thomas would set one back between €500-700. It goes without saying, this is unattainable for the average working class Irish citizen who was worst-affected by the snowstorms which tore through the country and claimed the lives of three.

“I bought it on sale about three years ago and it still serves me well,” he told Cork’s C103 Today Show. His unapologetic attitude didn’t sweeten the everyman’s Barry’s.

This could be considered ‘outrage porn’—“any type of media that is designed to evoke outrage for the purpose of getting traffic or attention online”—when there are real-world issues afoot.
Undoubtedly it is a pivotal time for women’s rights and women’s health issues in Ireland. On May 25 the country will go to the polls to vote in the referendum on the 8th amendment which could see the liberalisation of abortion rights in Ireland. But in Dáil Éireann yesterday, the members of the Oireachtas were debating the ongoing cancer screening controversy which has dominated headlines recently. 

The controversy surrounds women who were given incorrect smear test results.  Vicky Phelan, one of those affected, won a case against the Health Service Executive (the organisation responsible for the Irish healthcare system) and was awarded €2.5 million in redress. It was subsequently reported over 200 cervical smear results should have resulted in earlier intervention. 17 women in the 206 cases pinpointed had died. The government has launched an inquiry which will conclude at the end of the month and pledged redress for those affected.

Varadkar dressed for business in a charcoal suit and matching satin tie. He rallied opposition leaders in his corner of the Fine Gael wing. It was metaphoric, really. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and the Social Democrats’ Catherine Kelly had him cornered. 

His sobering suit selection reflected the severity of the situation at hand. The controversy has cast a shadow over the quality of the healthcare system in Ireland and the questionable practices of the HSE, for which the Taoiseach’s party is responsible. Moreover, his understated attire could be perceived as self-effacing, a reliable black ensemble to shield himself from the impact of his disputants. 

Men’s fashion in politics can prove tricky when it comes to identifying fashion statements. Generally, the tie or the button-up or button-down decision is examined. In the past, Varadkar has selected ties from a wide variety of colours and patterns which merely point to the Irish as stylistically maladroit than stylistically aware—if anything, it becomes blindingly obvious that they are blissfully unaware of the relationship between the appearance of politics and the politics of appearance. 

In times when political parties are questioned, rattled or doubted, the aim of the leader should be to reassure, to exert capability, competence and control. But the Taoiseach’s nondescript ensemble made him look like ‘just another politician’. It was an anonymous outfit which failed to assert anything. What he doesn’t comprehend is the power in conveying a message through his clothing choices. In order to be a convincing leader, one could begin by dressing like one.

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