“Appearance is the first impression people get of you …” As Britain's first woman Prime Minister, how did Margaret Thatcher arrive at the image she now presents to the British public and to the world? How does she rate the British fashion industry? What changes has she made at No 10? Here she talks to Ingrid Bleichroeder about all this and more … On October 15 she will give a reception to mark British Fashion Week, and in December the Queen will be Guest of Honour at a dinner to celebrate the 250th anniversary of No 10 as the Prime Minister's residence.
“I am passionately interested in fashion. It brings both pleasure—because being well-dressed gives everyone pleasure—and it brings jobs. My mother was a dressmaker, a professional dressmaker, so I was brought up to know the importance of cut and how to handle fabrics. In those days, of course, there was no such thing as synthetics. When I was first married I made some of my own and the children's clothes—you couldn't buy such nice children's clothes then. But I didn't learn about the essentials of cut until very much later. I didn't fully understand until I had the chance to see a really classic dressmaker working on a fitting.
I do read Vogue. When we look at fashions, ordinary people like me, we would love photographs which show you what the clothes are actually like—back and front, and what they look like in movement. When you're buying clothes, you mustn't just stand in front of the mirror, but see how you move in them. See how they move, and how they sit. If you're buying a classic, they are expensive, and you've got to be very, very careful in buying. And if they have to be altered, you have to wait to get them altered properly to fit you. Everything matters—the cut, the linings, the finish, the detail. A tailored jacket has an architecture of its own. I've learnt a great deal about clothes, and I'm absolutely at one with Jean Muir when she said that the difficulty is to get people who know about all the technical details—all the rules of dressmaking—all the techniques, about handling materials, about the kind of seam you do, and what kind of stitching you do, about the numbers and spacing of buttons and so on.
“Fashion exists to serve the needs and wants of the consumer. Large sums of money are spent on it. Fashion is big business. It is possible, with the use of modern technology, to produce greater output with fewer people, but fashion will continue to be one of the labour intensive industries. The designing, the finishing, the handling—all this has to be done, not by machines, but by human labour.
“What can I do to help? We now have the British Fashion Council and, yes, we can help them with British Fashion Weeks. We have the British Overseas Trade Board, and they help the industry abroad. It gives me enormous pleasure to hold fashion receptions here. I think I am the first head of Government to do so. Anything I can do to heighten the spotlight on British fashion, I do …
“One of the characteristics of our industry is that we have many young designers. Others, like Jean Muir, design for the expensive classic market. Still more, Zandra Rhodes, for instance, for people who spend a great deal of money on evening clothes. Here the workmanship is superb. Such clothes are far beyond what I personally would ever spend, but there is always a market for the best. The best fabrics, the best design, the best workmanship—there are always people prepared to pay for it. So we have not only got the young designers, we have the elegant designers, the ones at the upper end of the market.
“At the reception I gave last year, I noticed that buyers from all over the world were particularly interested in the clothes our young designers were making for young people. If there's a demand for young designers and their work, fine, then we will fill it. I was obviously more interested in the elegant clothes. The publicity was given to the outré, which didn't interest me at all. That didn't matter—the buyers bought them and that helped trade.
“We have always been good at mass production. We lead the world in bringing good design within the range of many people. Firms like Marks & Spencer have done wonders. And of great importance is our tradition for outstanding tailoring. The tailored suit is the backbone of the executive woman's wardrobe.
“Now all this means that any Prime Minister, particularly a woman Prime Minister, ought to give a boost to the industry. First of all it gives publicity: if people like the clothes you are wearing they might come and buy here.
“One learns the rules gradually. It is a question of progressively buying fairly classic clothes, making changes in the detail,. For a woman in public life, whether she is a magistrate, a lawyer, or in business, it is not her clothes that matter, it is her. That is why women in public life tend to wear classic or ‘quiet’ clothes, because the clothes are the background for the personality. The essence of the well-dressed woman is never to be exaggerated. Appearance is the first impression people get of you. And it does matter. It matters tremendously when you represent your country abroad. In a flash you can recognise other women who have the same philosophy towards clothes. Certainly, when I meet other women ministers abroad, we tend to be wearing the same kind of thing.
“I have bought about two suits a year since I have been here. In the last two years, the shoulders have been a little wider, the tops of the sleeves a little more important. That's the only sort of genuflection I make to fashion. When I don't know what to wear for a great occasion, I tend not to wear anything new. When I addressed the United States Congress, for example, I wanted to wear something that was familiar, absolutely classic, that always looked good, and so I went straight for a light wool suit. There was deep snow in Peking when I went to sign the Hong Kong agreement, so I wore a black winter suit. You have to look after suits, and I do. In my wardrobe you wouldn't recognise much difference between the old and the new.
“From watching well-dressed women I have learnt the importance of accessories. I always wear pearls. It doesn't matter in the least that they are not real—these are cultured pearls—but they make you stand out in a plain dress or a plain suit. Pearls were made for older women. They are complimentary to the skin.
“And shoes—I just wear plain ones, I'm afraid: the plain old court shoe. I survive on black and navy suede and black calf. Rayne have done me marvellously well. I no longer need to try shoes on—they know my ‘last’ and send over what I need.
“You need years of training to keep information in your mind. I am always grateful that at school, in my time, we were given memory training. You had to learn chunks of Shakespeare, chunks of prose. You were taught how to remember facts on the basis that if you had to think, you had to have something to think with. I had a naturally good memory. Add to that a scientific training, a legal training, and years and years of experience … I also have a natural aptitude for figures. So it has all come together, and it is cumulative. It is like learning a foreign language. As long as you go on using it, all your experience is still up-to-date. The moment you cease to use something, your mind disregards it. For example, after the long Recess, when we go back to answering questions in the House, I find the first two or three days more difficult.
“I can never totally switch off. I must go away, because, although one doesn't feel tired or think one is tried, I need time for recharging the mind, the ideas, recharging the batteries. I am still dealing with things that have to be dealt with, and, if anything comes up, the adrenalin pours out … You use your mind rather as you do a bank account. There is a lot on deposit that you draw out, but it has constantly got to be put back in. During the long Recess, I invite a considerable number of academic people and those who work in industry to discuss foreign affairs, economic affairs, constantly to pit my mind against others and to see new aspects of things.
“I have made the kind of changes at Number 10 that any woman in charge would make. Not expensive ones, but we have bombarded people to get nice pictures, nice furniture. I want it to be a historic house: when you come in you see immediately a picture of Walpole and one of Pitt. We have a number of portraits—Ellen Terry, Mrs Siddons, Chantry, Garrick—and I've also got a little gallery of scientists: people who depict a part of our history. In the main dining-room, over the fireplace, is a picture of George II—it was he who bought the house and gave it to the nation for Prime Ministers. We also have a picture of Wellington, and of Nelson—it is a beauty, one of my favourites. All the silver is on loan—every bit of it. There was none when I came: Downing Street had no silver at all. The porcelain comes from the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I like beautiful things around, especially when we are entertaining visitors, and I take good care of them. I have Spode, Worcester, Crown Derby on the mantelpiece in the dining-room, two beautiful vases from the British Museum in the pillared room. We try to display the best from Britain for visitors to see. I must do something about the furnishings in this room—they're getting a little bit shabby. But we don't spend money unnecessarily.
“I am eternally grateful that I was brought up in a small town. The strength you can get from a small community is a tremendous advantage. Unless you keep everything in perspective, you can get a totally wrong idea of life. Life is much better than it was fifty years ago. We know tragedies go on the world over, but we try to help. Personal kindness is another of the things you learn in the kind of life I was brought up to. At the same time, the news brings a much more concentrated diet of violence, and it is more difficult to keep that in perspective than it used to be.
“Our family have always had to be healthy. You forget how grindingly hard your grand-parents worked. To run a home, look after children, do a job, women throughout time have needed a lot of energy. My mother helped in the business, ran the house, made up clothes, did the upholstery. In the Methodist Church we were taught to use ‘the shining hour’. That was the way I was brought up. We are all energetic.
“I think, historically, the term ‘Thatcherism’ will be seen to be a compliment. People say ‘inflexible’. What they mean is firm. People want to know where they are with you. If you are firm it means also that you are firm on certain principles. I find that many young people today are hankering for a set of standards of which they can be certain in an uncertain world. You cannot live together as a community except by a set of rules, which you all agree. People do want standards in civilisation.
“I wouldn't like to be remembered for a particular achievement, but people know that I always fight for what I believe in. And one believes fundamentally that the British character will triumph because it is basically an independent character. Therefore you must always have a State which recognises the fundamentals of the British character, which are freedom allied with responsibility under a rule of law. That is really the essence of what one is trying to do. If you have freedom, you must rise to its responsibilities. You must realise that no one has any freedom unless we all accept the rule of law. One famous classical author said, ‘People who are free are not entirely free because they are under a rule of law’. That is right, and what I have consistently fought for …”
“The suit I am wearing was one of the first I had, so it is about five years old. I vary it with blouses, different accessories …”