I understand why many female politicians dress the way they do, so I’ve piped down on the subject this election because there have been so many other issues to worry about. Besides, who in their right mind wants to give female MPs more grief than they already get for the way they look?
Then I attended a Lib Dem party on Tuesday to celebrate their achievements in the arts. I never quite got to drill down into those achievements, because one of the most commonly voiced questions among the cheery crowd was, “Why does Jo dress the way she does?” OK, maybe I got to hear this because some people there knew what I do for a living. But I suspect they were simply saying out loud what many instinctively think, because, as we know, first impressions are formed in seconds, and when it comes to those drawn from television, most of our initial deduction is powered by the visual senses.
This isn’t a uniquely female problem. Michael Foot was doomed politically the moment he stepped out in that faux-humble donkey jacket. Jeremy Corbyn’s wonky glasses on the ITV debate attracted hilarity (admittedly the bar is low this election).
Nor is it a beauty contest. No one expects real-life politicians to look like Robin Wright in House of Cards or Pierce Brosnan, who played the Tony Blair character in The Ghost Writer. But we’re all seeking reassuring figures who can look pulled together and empathetic, and not embarrass us on an international stage.
Poor Jo Swinson. She didn’t have an easy time on that Question Time leaders’ debate, partly because the audience had been chosen according to how each party polled in the last election. So, while there were a fair number of haters of both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in the room, they each had their share of vocal supporters. Not so Swinson. She wasn’t bad, but that ill-fitting dress (“old-fashioned bank teller” and “superannuated weather reader” are two descriptions I’ve heard a lot this week) was. “And she’s got to ditch those earrings,” said a millennial.
I’ll tell you why she doesn’t. Those earrings, like Theresa May’s leopard-print kitten heels, are what the average time-pressed, insanely harassed MP imagines to be “relatable” talking points. Somewhere along the way – the last time they managed to sit down for five minutes with a copy of Grazia that they weren’t actually being interviewed in, probably – they’ve twigged that fashion is a major bonding topic among 25- to 65-year-old women (and increasingly often, men). How many people had heard of Lady Hale before her humongous spider brooch went viral?
You can’t be too quirky, though, because before you know it, you’ve toppled into creepy. Too fashion and you’re frivolous. Too frumpy and you’re out of touch and irrelevant. Preen, and you’re veering into Esther McVey territory. Sexy would just be asking for everything you get on Twitter. Too strictly tailored and you’re Emily Thornberry (although Thornberry would still be terrifying in a Paddington Bear onesie). Too cardigan and you’re – well, no, don’t do cardigans, especially if you haven’t got around to buying a decent new bra for five years, which, going by the evidence, you haven’t. Dress cheaply and you’ll look a rumpled mess. Spend too much (whatever “too much” is in this context) and you’re an out-of-touch dinosaur who’ll be putting the cost of your moat on expenses next.
In theory (in a parallel universe where none of us behaves or thinks the way we actually do), clothes don’t matter in politics. We should focus entirely on policy not Prada, on substance not style. But that’s not human nature.
If the visual senses weren’t such a powerful impulse in our species, we would never have had Vermeer or Picasso, Christopher Wren or Eileen Gray. Besides, style doesn’t preclude substance. The fact that St Paul’s looks the way it does and is still standing after 350 years proves that a genius for geometry, physics and engineering can coexist alongside a highly tuned appreciation of aesthetics.
We all know this deep down, but with flecks of puritan guilt still floating around our frontal cortex, we try to pretend it’s not the case. It’s not about the way you look, darling, it’s whether you’re kind, we tell our children. And yes, QED, kindness is paramount. But that doesn’t mean that putting on your best front somehow compromises your kindness reflexes. The maths of human psychology don’t work like that.
In the spirit of public service, therefore, I suggest that female MPs stop apologising for investing some thought and effort in the way that they dress. It could save them time in the long run and provide them with some much-needed armour. Love them or loathe them, Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon’s uniforms of, in the former’s case, trouser suits of many colours, and in the latter’s, dresses and matching jackets, represent consistency and a sense of resolution. Having got their staples right, they can, like their suit-wearing male counterparts, get on with concentrating on other things.
That’s not to say every MP has to wear a suit – this goes for men and women. On the right personality, a great pair of trousers, or even jeans, flat boots, a good blouse, shirt or chunky jumper would look great – modern, in touch, youthful. All men have to do is put on a suit. It's not so straightforward for women wanting to look authoritative. But as the portrait from Grazia shows, good quality casual clothes that fit properly can look much sleeker and more flattering than badly fitting "formal" clothes. That said, a decent blazer with a bit of stretch can work wonders.
Don’t dress in an obviously extravagant way, but don’t look cheap, either – it’s patronising. If budgeting is imperative – either for real, or electoral reasons – shop at M&S or Next, and get it overhauled by a good alterations service, so that it fits you properly and the mic pack you’ll have to slip down the back of it doesn’t make you look as though you’re slouching. Don’t slouch. Get your teeth fixed. This isn’t vanity but consideration to us, the voters, who have to watch you. A lot.
Talking of us, don’t listen when we say we want our politicians to be exactly like us. What we’d really like is for you be quite a lot cleverer (but not in the way Rees-Mogg thinks, by using ludicrously arcane phraseology incorrectly), and to come across as more together.
Find the right colours that don’t make you look jaundiced/splenetic/half-dead, and if yellow, electric blue or red isn’t one of them, don’t wear them, even if they are your party livery. Get professional style advice. This doesn’t have to be costly – it can come free with the purchase of the new bras you’re going to buy in John Lewis. But if you do end up paying a bit, it’s worth it – see how great Swinson looked when styled by a professional for the pages of Grazia. This is about your aptitude for communication and the message you present to us and the world. Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle, on opposite sides of the House, both understood this and dressed accordingly. How you put yourself together matters and to feign otherwise is not merely dumbed-down feminism, it’s fake facts.
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