Renowned around the world for their formal, buttoned-down style, Britain’s ambassadors are moving from pinstripe to glamour thanks to the fashion sense of the Foreign Office’s new envoy to Italy.
Jill Morris, 49, has qualified as the UK’s best-dressed ambassador by modelling a series of elaborate outfits by Dame Vivienne Westwood, the British designer who helped to launch punk rock on the world.
After the pioneer of ripped T-shirts and tartan was invited to show off her latest, more restrained creations at a charity sale at the British embassy in Rome, Ms Morris took the opportunity to change into a collection of Westwood’s outfits rarely seen in the corridors of power.
In a series of photos posted by Ms Morris on social media, she modelled flowing gowns at Villa Wolkonsky, the large embassy residence in Rome where the sale was held, which boasts elegant gardens, a swimming pool and its own collection of Roman antiquities.
“In order to raise interest in the sale and the British fashion industry — and I am very interested in fashion — they were kind enough to let me try the clothes on,” Ms Morris said.
The ambassador denied that she had set out to shake up the staid fashion sense of UK envoys. “I do not see this as challenging the traditional image of the ambassador,” she said.
“I may be the first female ambassador in Rome but ambassadors look different to how they did 20 or 30 years ago. The Foreign Office is more diverse these days and we have an organisation that reflects society.”
Of the ambassadors representing the UK around the world, 50 are women, including Barbara Woodward, 55, Britain’s first female ambassador to China.
All three British ambassadors now in Rome — representing the UK to Italy, the Vatican and the UN organisations in the city — are women.
Ms Morris served as director of the Europe department at the Foreign Office for four years before getting the Rome posting this year, which has often been considered in the past as a reward for diplomats coming from jobs in hostile environments.
An unmarried, fluent Italian speaker, Ms Morris has already impressed the natives with her stylish dress sense.
“All organisations are more successful and strong when they are diverse because they include different ways of thinking, and the Foreign Office embraces that,” she said. An embassy spokesman in Rome said that the invitation to Dame Vivienne to use Villa Wolkonsky for a charity sale was made last year under the previous ambassador, Christopher Prentice.
“It didn’t attract so much attention last year,” he said.
Before his Rome posting, Mr Prentice served as ambassador to Iraq between 2007 and 2009. An Arabic speaker, he was sent to Benghazi in 2011 to head the UK’s diplomatic team in Libya after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi.
Ms Morris has taken up the Rome job, her first as ambassador, as Italy heads towards a crucial referendum which has pitted the prime minister Matteo Renzi against rising populist parties seeking to overturn the government and emulate the success of Brexit voters.
She is closely involved in ensuring that relations between the UK and Italy remain smooth as potentially fractious talks loom over Britain’s exit from the European Union.
During the three-day event, which started on Thursday, the embassy invited guests to the residence to try on and buy 1,000 items including dresses, shoes and accessories. Ms Morris did not keep any of the clothes she modelled.
“It’s a private sale for embassy contacts, mostly Italians, with part of the revenue going to charity,” a spokesman said. “We use the opportunity to promote British fashion and recognise its importance to the British economy.”
Dame Vivienne’s manager for Italy, Giorgio Ravasio, said: “It’s a real honour to be hosted by the British embassy for what is, for us, an important charity initiative.”
The fashion industry is worth £26 billion to the British economy, supports 797,000 jobs and is considered the largest employer among the UK’s creative industries. Exports were worth £7.5 billion in 2014.
Dame Vivienne rose to fame making outrageous clothes for the King’s Road shop run by the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McClaren. Princess Eugenie wore one of her outfits at the 2011 royal wedding.
Her excellencies: women with a mission
Israel’s first female prime minister stepped into the job having served as the country’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, taking up the role in 1948 just five months after the country declared independence.
The famously ringleted child star took a serious interest in politics in later life. She served as US ambassador to the UN from 1969 to 1970, then took over the equivalent post in Ghana four years later. She then spent three years, between 1989 and 1992, in Czechoslovakia.
Jan Thompson She has been Britain’s ambassador to the Czech Republic since 2013. Unmarried, she joined the Foreign Office in 1990 after two years at the BBC.
Thought to have been the world’s first female ambassador. Was envoy to Japan for the short-lived First Republic of Armenia from 1918-20.