Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Is it always trivial to talk about clothes in politics?

James Crabtree at Prospect just drew my attention to this blog by Katharine Quarmby explaining why the hijab creates havoc for her hair. She acknowledges that this is obviously trivial compared to the real issues women face in Iran, but still I liked the fact that she blogged about it because I think women should be allowed to talk about clothes in politics.

Which got me back to thinking about a training session Progress held for aspiring Labour women considering whether they should go for selection and the advice given there about what women should wear. "It's easy for men", said the convener, "they just get to wear a suit, but it's a minefield for women" as Barbara Follett found out pre-97 when she tried to improve the fashion image of Labour women in a practice which became known as 'Folletting'.

The dilemma is often how to look smart without going over the top, and my particular bugbear is how I put a few inches on my diminutive five ft half an inch while ensuring my feet don't get mashed up by a few hours campaigning. I've tried out lots of campaigning shoes over the years, and you can't get away from the fact that flat is best, but it doesn't always look like you've made the effort if you're a short person.

Similarly, in politics you're often expected to go to receptions and the like, and I am always deeply impressed with women like Hazel Blears who manage to wear high heels at a party without fainting. In heels, I tend to spend the evening preoccupied with finding the nearest seat. At Labour Party Conference I can often be spotted giving up on the heels entirely at the end of the evening and walking barefoot back to my hotel.

And have any of you gone out campaigning in make-up, only for it to bucket it down and for you to end up looking like you've spent the afternoon watching Truly, Madly, Deeply? Talk about losing votes on the doorstep.

Finally, don't get me started on the issue of cleavage. Poor Jacqui Smith found out that women are never very far from the sexism which we thought we'd left behind when Labour first got into government. Last year I got a deeply sad/hilarious letter from a chap who had been looking rather too closely at my upper half rather than listening to the arguments I was trying to put forward on the Daily Politics. What I'd like to know is whether men in politics ever get letters slamming them for wearing trousers that are too tight?


  1. Dam I'm old Labour you can wear what you like 'it's what you say that matters, and thats a problem, what Labour have been saying of late makes me wince.

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  3. (Oooh sorry having posting issues!)

    Think this is a really good point.

    I certainly think it's a valid issue to discuss - women are often (wrongly) judged on their appearance and what they wear, so it's reasonable that we should be able to discuss how best to deal with this, on a practical level, and work towards a situation where such appearance-judging no longer exists.

    Obviously, we also need to find a balance so that in discussing the issue, we are not legitimising the judging!


  4. Yes, you're right about not legitimising it too much, but we should also feel empowered to talk about it if we want! I think the worst, most despicable example of judging a woman in a public situation was the Daily Mail's judgement on Andy Burnham's wife. Was just torrid.

  5. Jessica, I could discuss this for a long time!!! My experience of being a local govt by election candidate was that, even when I wore the most uninteresting, "modest" clothes possible my appearance was still a topic for general comment and debate. The up side was that I could use the perceived significance of my image to my advantage too, i.e. a West Ham mug in a photo, wearing a shalwar chemise and covering my head when outside a mosque - using visual symbols to build trust. Looking different to the perceived average politician also helped with name recognition on the doorstep.

    I think this is something that we as Labour women ought to be able to talk about, as it is a symptom of how women's experiences in public life are different to men's. This doesn’t mean that we have to put up with the kind of personal comments or treatment you have described.

  6. When I first started talking to Labour Women's Network about taking a more active part in public life, I was told that I needed to spend a lot more money on clothes and make up. As an Asian women in a fairly puritan bramo household at the time it presented me with a number of challenges.

    Over the course of time, I've not really changed much apart from wearing trousers rather than Salwar Kamez (purely on the basis that there's less ironing and more frugal as trousers last longer). I think when I lost my council seat i 2007 it really had nothing to do with what I wore but what I did that made me a target for Lib Dems. I'll be wearing the same stuff when I try and gain the seat in the County elections I'll let you know if I win.

  7. It's important that we talk about this kind of thing, not least because it's a way for individual women to reach their own decisions about what's right for them. That women are all individuals who need space to reflect on how they want to respond to society's conditioning was brought home to me just now, listening to the second episode of Radio 4's Call Yourself a Feminist: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2009/03/who_you_callin
    I feel a bit feeble given all the 'firsts' that the 1970s feminists achieved.

    Nonetheless, as a small woman who looks younger than I am, I have noticed over the years that I feel the need to dress more "seriously" and "masculine" when I am embarking on something new in my work life and as I get more confident and feel my work and position speaks for itself I relax a bit more into skirts, cardies and tight tops. I also empathise with the post above about preferring things that don't need ironing!

    I understand the point about sexualisation of women's bodies, but also think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that I feel I need to hide the fact that I am female in order to be taken more seriously. Mainly I think women shouldn't be told by anyone (particularly not other women, as the previous post reports) what they should be wearing, and if we want to express our individuality through our clothes and spend our disposable income on fabulous shoes rather than gadgets, why shouldn't we?

  8. Yes absolutely, to the comment above by JessC. The day we know that some semblance of equality is reached will be when there are far fewer comments about our clothes/appearance and when we don't have to think very much about what we wear. On the other hand, as women in the public eye, we will always have to pay a little bit more caution as to how we present ourselves because being representatives means we take our role seriously, and male or female, that will probably make a small difference to the public who vote for us.

    I do strongly believe, however, that how we spend our money should not be judged on whether we spend it on shoes vs whatever men (or sometimes other women) judge is important, simply whether we do a good job in the role which we work in.

  9. Great post Jessica and interesting comments. As women we are under a lot of pressure to be thin and fashionable. I dress to please myself to be comfortable and if we can resist the pressure and be ourselves we will be empowered
    That's what I think, anyway.

  10. What's wrong with a suit for women? Trouser suit, skirt suit - a huge range of colours with some gorgeous shirts/feminine tops to match.

    Or really rock the boat and turn up in a gypsy skirt with beads!

    People focusing on what you wear rather than what's in your head or coming out of your mouth is an age old problem. Best way round it is to just keep focusing on what comes out of your mouth and forget about everything else!

    I was talking to a church elder yesterday and his eyes were less on my face and more on my chest! I usually go silent and wait for them to look up at me..... it never happens twice!