In this photo of British Prime Minister, Theresa May, facing the press with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, at the recent G20 Summit, you can see very clearly the politics of the moment reflected in their outfits and their body language. Note Mrs. May’s bent head, half-smile, distracted hand gestures and legs in an “ankle-lock”. Note Mr. Putin’s open, relaxed posture, direct gaze and smile. Guess who is the more confident? Not to confuse body language with simple practicality, what has happened here is that Mrs. May’s outfit has caused her to appear less than confident. The British Cabinet Office’s press and media people should’ve sorted this out – at the risk of getting personal with the PM. Mrs. May’s pencil skirt was too short for an event where she would be seated, particularly considering that she is quite tall, 1.72 m. A skirt, depending on how tight it is and what it’s made of, rides up 2 to 4 inches above the knee when you sit down – like hers has. This is not a sexist comment – it is pointing out the elephant in the room. So what is the dress code for photo shoots?
The rule is, wear something that is well below the knee, about mid-calf when you stand, so that when you sit down your bare knees and thighs are not exposed. The same goes for bare arms and cleavage. The skirt length rule is just one rule amongst many – there are literally handbooks on how to dress, codes of conduct and protocol for high-ranking government officials and royalty all around the world. You can see this particular rule being followed on photos of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when she was the only woman in the British Cabinet. And of course on all photos of Queen Elizabeth II on public engagements. It is simply a matter of practicality (and perhaps also a matter of taste): short skirt = bare knees and thighs when seated. It is true for everyone, celebrities, public figures, CEOs, ministers, presidents, women – and men too. Don’t wear a too short kilt or too tight pants or all sorts of embarrassments will ensue when you sit down.
As a result of the length of her skirt, Mrs. May looks uncomfortable. This is an unnecessary distraction for someone who has only recently, July 2016, joined the ranks of leaders of first world countries, the G20 and the G8, and needs all the shows of strength she can get. When someone is in such a prominent position, even the smallest facet of behaviour is scrutinized and analyzed and can be used against them (Hillary Clinton being a case in point).
What does the body language mean?
On the photo with Mr. Putin, Mrs. May had to sit sideways in her chair, a stance that indicates insecurity and a reluctance to engage with the other party as an equal. Her posture is called the “ankle lock” and, while it was probably necessitated by her outfit, is makes her look as if she is trying to minimize her leg space – indicating that she is mentally “biting her lip” and feeling unsure. Mr. Putin, on the other hand, is not. Photo shoots like these at high-level events like the G8 Summit are about business, strategy, power and diplomacy, not gender, so people’s outfits should be as formal and neutral as possible. It is all about first impressions and appearances.
A more experienced country leader is Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who safely and practically opts time and again for trouser suits or long tunics with trousers. As can be seen in this formal photo, above, of her newly announced cabinet for 2016, they also stand in a semi-circle, and not pose in rows – and they all wear black. Much more democratic, don’t you think?