Christine Lagarde: Dressing all the way to the bank

The head of the IMF has attracted attention for her sartorial elegance. But what is the secret behind her fashion icon status? Robb Young considers the style signifiers

It was during a particularly gruelling session at one of the emergency summits held to keep the Eurozone from falling apart that – for a very brief moment – Christine Lagarde appeared to be on the verge of losing her famous composure.  But then something stirred in the IMF chief and she reached up to unknot her watercolour scarf, releasing it in one deft movement so it fell loosely over her right shoulder and hung down to her waist. 

By liberating herself of a physically confining accessory which has also become her trademark, Lagarde was able to signal a turning point in the conversation toward a more frank,  inclusive tone – in some way akin to a man loosening his necktie or rolling up his shirt sleeves in order to show he's ready to ‘get down to business'.  As if on cue, the ministers who had been looking cheerless suddenly rallied around her and the conversation became upbeat and animated. At a summit where the mood had descended into collective despair, the scarf's reinvention as a distinguished sash reasserted Lagarde’s authority as a leader.

Although making such profound conclusions from a humble piece of cloth may sound fanciful, there are reasonable grounds when the wearer is Christine Lagarde. For eight years – first as a high-ranking minister in the French cabinet and now at the helm of the IMF – Lagarde has relied heavily on scarves to add a distinctive touch to her political uniform. 

So central has the scarf become to her signature style that it is on those rare occasions she's not wearing one when Lagarde appears to be really making a statement.  At last year's Berlin summit, when she met with the heads of the other major international financial institutions including the World Bank, the WTO and OECD, her neck looked practically naked despite the heavy grey pearls that swayed under it. Scarfless in a sleek matching grey suit, she looked exceptionally poised and alert at a time when the precariousness of the global economy was once again threatening to undermine her authority.

In the loop

When Lagarde first moved from a career in international law to politics, a bright and strategically-placed scarf helped her cultivate a bolder, more relaxed  image than many of her peers.  Depending on its colour, pattern, length and how you wear it, a scarf can be bourgeois or bohemian, sensible or romantic, timeless or nostalgic.  Her clever use of this ambiguous and adaptable accessory has been as persuasive as it has been prolific: a powerful tool to fine-tune her outfits of sleek tailoring and fastidiously elegant skirt suits. 

Twisted, folded, wrapped into a garment, looped, double knotted or even intertwined with a string of pearls, Lagarde finds countless ways to emphasise her individuality through scarves. She has been able to subtly suggest a nonconformist streak in her personality and perhaps in her political beliefs.  Something as seemingly inconsequential as a silk scarf with one side draped longer than the other, for instance, speaks volumes about political figures like Lagarde because asymmetry is not part of their conventional style template. 

On the other hand, the outfits favoured by Lagarde are entirely age-appropriate – a cardinal rule in the political realm. She is obviously not out to break any taboos. Instead, she adds a flourish of humanity, femininity and personality to her streamlined, usually monochrome wardrobe of flattering but rather unexceptional attire with her printed neckerchiefs, supple pashminas or ribbon bows.  The overall effect is that she looks unfussy but somehow still memorable, classy and dignified. 

Expensive taste

Lagarde's style also reveals the role that nationality can play in public attitudes toward international political figures.  In her native France, top-end designer labels like Hermès and Chanel are seen as symbols of heritage and good taste as much as signs of the luxury lifestyle – but this isn’t the case everywhere else.  Her fondness for weighty jewellery, metallic embellishments and conspicuously expensive handbags like the Hermès Birkin hasn’t gone unnoticed either.

For some, the impression that she is flaunting her elite status is confirmed by the brands she wears.  It only takes a scan of the comments on her official Facebook page to see that Lagarde’s wardrobe is evidence for some of a callous disregard for ordinary people feeling hard times.  Not surprisingly, many of this vocal minority are from countries beleaguered by austerity measures which they blame Lagarde for ushering in through the IMF.  Reports that her salary is higher than President Obama’s and is, unlike his, tax-free under the Vienna Convention, haven't helped the matter. However, she has also shown that she can wear more affordable, no-nonsense designer brands like Austin Reed and Ventilo with panache.

Whatever is said about the money she spends on her wardrobe or the policies she pursues at the IMF, there is a growing consensus that Lagarde is a style icon in the making, albeit a quiet one.  Style-watchers have been impressed by her inclusion in Vanity Fair's 2011 Best Dressed List and her effortlessly chic appearance in American Vogue the same year.

Lagarde’s nonchalant approach to fashion has been the driving force behind her appeal so far. And her style will continue to be the subject of such intense interest as long as she dresses in a way that a diverse, international audience finds neither contrived nor calculated, and yet alluring.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.