LONDON — Never mind Britain’s tortuous decision to leave the European Union. Lately, another matter of state has been preoccupying Britons across the realm: a $1,250 pair of “desert khaki” leather pants.
The uproar, referred to as “Trousergate” by tabloid newspapers in Britain, which has raised cries of sexism and ageism, began about two weeks ago when The Sunday Times Magazine in London published a photograph of Prime Minister Theresa May, smiling and sitting casually on a sofa in her home, wearing chic leather trousers by the designer Amanda Wakeley.
Rather than focusing on the uncharacteristically personal reflections Mrs. May, 60, revealed in the article about being the only child of a clergyman, or her sleepless nights over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, self-appointed arbiters of taste and propriety began wagging fingers about the no-nonsense prime minister’s expensive attire.
“I don’t have leather trousers. I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on anything, apart from my wedding dress,” Nicky Morgan, a former education secretary, told The Times of London, adding that Mrs. May’s sartorial choice had been “noticed and discussed” in the Conservative Party she leads.
Mrs. Morgan, who was fired from the cabinet in July and who has clashed with Mrs. May over European, immigration and education policy, suggested that the prime minister’s upmarket fashion sense was misplaced in this age of austerity. “My barometer is always, ‘How am I going to explain this in Loughborough market?’” she said, referring to her parliamentary constituency in Leicestershire, a slice of middle-class England that is the home of Red Leicester cheese and pork pies.
Soon, The Guardian reported that Downing Street, where the prime minister works and lives, had disinvited Mrs. Morgan from a private meeting with Mrs. May to discuss plans for Britain’s exit from the European Union, prompting criticism that the British leader was vengeful and thin-skinned.
Mrs. May’s office added to the intrigue by refusing to be drawn into a debate over whether the now-famous garment had been purchased with a discount card. Asked on a flight to Bahrain whether the trousers could signal that she was out of touch with the common voter, Mrs. May extolled “the importance of a country that works for everyone.”
At a time of working-class revolt on both sides of the Atlantic, the accusations of elitism have been particularly awkward for Mrs. May. An Oxford-educated former home secretary, she has railed against the establishment and promised to champion Britons who are “just about managing,” people she referred to as “Jams” in her first speech as prime minister.
“Glad @theresa_may is nice and warm in her £2000 leather trousers while so many can’t afford to heat their homes, #ToriesOut,” Theresa D., a Labour supporter and 40-something mother, wrote on Twitter, referring to an exaggerated cost of $2,500, or double the real price of the pants.
“Job seekers allowance for a year is £3796. One pair of Theresa May Trousers £1000. So glad she is in touch with the common people,” Pamela Fitzpatrick, a counselor in Harrow for the opposition Labour Party, wrote on Twitter, referring to unemployment benefits.
One political cartoon making the rounds on social media showed a diabolical-looking Mrs. May, hunched over an old-fashioned sewing machine, making leather trousers from the skin off the back of her divisive foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. “In the spirit of austerity, from now on, I shall be making … my own leather trousers,” the cartoon reads.
For all the tut-tutting, many commentators of both sexes argued that Mrs. May was the victim of a double-standard, asking whether anyone would question the cost of her trousers if she were a man, or comment on her fashion sensibilities — including her much-discussed penchant for kitten-heel animal-print shoes.
After all, President-elect Donald J. Trump had been able to fashion himself as a working-class hero despite his luxurious Brioni suits, which can cost as much as $17,000. Mrs. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, who attended an elite boarding school, meanwhile, generally wore made-to-measure suits from Richard James, estimated at more than $4,000. Conversely, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticized for his scruffy appearance but has worn his frumpiness like a badge of honor.
The online fashion editor of The Guardian, Morwenna Ferrier, lamented that even as the number of women in government grows, there is still no political uniform for them equivalent to a men’s suit, leaving female politicians more vulnerable to unjustified scrutiny of their clothing choices.
“Hillary Clinton’s Ralph Lauren pantsuit is as close at it gets,” she wrote on The Guardian’s website. “But even she was vilified for dressing like a flag (she wore red, white and blue for each of the three debates).”
Mrs. Clinton was also criticized for wearing an Armani Coat that retails for $12,495 while warning about the perils of social inequality in a speech celebrating her victory in New York’s Democratic primary.
The Daily Telegraph’s fashion director, Lisa Armstrong, pointed at a double standard playing out in the trousers tussle, saying that female politicians were expected to be stylish yet were maligned if they tried too hard. “First it was: Leather at her age — really?” she wrote. “Now it’s, £1,000 for leather trousers — how dare she?”
If male politicians “frequent Savile Row, where a suit can easily cost £5,000, they’re praised for supporting a national craft,” Ms. Armstrong noted.
She added, “Theresa May is damned if she does and sneered at if she doesn’t.”
In the end, Mrs. May could have the last laugh: In recent days, the Amanda Wakeley leather trousers have almost sold out on the fashion label’s website.
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