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Can women be interested in both politics and fashion?

Written By Isabelle Lepine

It’s no secret that Politics is a ruthless and cutthroat world. For centuries Hell has been depicted as a nightmarish pit of fire where sinners are sent to burn in eternal damnation. I would argue that is not a dissimilar description of our very own House of Commons in recent years.

You only have to read the headlines of the current battle for Prime Minister between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to witness first-hand the brutality in which they take pleasure in tearing each other down. They pick, not only at their counterparts policies, but increasingly their appearance, family, background, relationships – anything which can inadvertently win them a slither more of public favour. I can quite confidently confirm that as a politics student, there is nothing I would rather do less than enter the lawless lion’s den that is parliament.

Although there are never any survivors to resurface post holding public office, historically I would argue women who participate at any level in political processes are treated significantly differently to their male counterparts. They’re branded as soulless ice-queens who selfishly put their careers first, whilst their family flounder in the negative press that surrounds them. Their capability is questioned because of their gender. Although, this could never be acknowledged due to sexism accusations and so is disguised as subtly picking at what makes them different: femininity.

The balance of femininity that women have to strike in political work environments is equivalent to an elephant walking a tightrope. Remain professional at all times, but not austere or unfeeling. Dress appropriately, however any sign of womanhood by Eurocentric standards is branded as distracting. Be assertive and knowledgeable, but never dominant.

Theresa May is a prime example. When her campaign for Prime Minister was launched in 2016, she was quick to acknowledge her cold front. “I know I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch...I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.” I would argue with confidence that this same sentence would be praised if it came from a man’s mouth. Even after countless ministerial cheating scandals and lack of governmental transparency, he would be hailed for his focus, directness, and determination. Instead, the public raised their concerns, citing her lack of experiencing motherhood as part of the problem, despite her having spoken with dignity about her sadness at not being able to have children.

Lest we forget as well, the leopard print heels debacle, when her kitten heels received major backlash, with calls for her to wear more “sensible shoes”. Penny Robinson of the GMB union was amongst the most vocal in her aversion to the PMs choice of footwear. “Let the media see that you can be the most powerful woman in the country…without needing to wear designer shoes to meet men’s expectations.” She added, “For once, set an example we can be proud of.” But as Rishi Sunak stepped out recently in his designer suit, whilst it raised eyebrows, its relevance to his ability to carry out his political duties was dismissed just as quickly as it was raised. The double standard speaks for itself.

So, when I opened the news recently and saw Nicola Sturgeon slamming Liz Truss for quizzing her about how to land a Vogue interview at the Cop26 last year, I have to admit I couldn’t help but laugh.

Speaking at the Edinburgh fringe event, the Scottish First minister recalled the meeting with the Conservative leadership favourite, shortly after her second interview with the fashion bible had come out in 2021. “I remember it quite well actually. I had just done, and this is going to sound really up myself, but I don’t mean to… I’d just been interviewed by Vogue, as you do… that was the main thing she wanted to talk to me about, she wanted to know how she could get into Vogue. I said to her, they came and asked me.”

Speaking to political commentator Iain Dale at the Edinburgh fringe event, Sturgeon said that when she told the foreign secretary that she had in fact appeared in Vogue twice (once in 2015 and again in 2021), Truss “looked a little bit as if she’d swallowed a wasp”.

This story made front page news of nearly every UK media outlet. It was the top story being promoted online too and it’s hook? Liz Truss was curious of Sturgeon’s appearance in a world-famous fashion magazine.

By no means am I about to advertise Liz Truss as a politician. If truth be told, I would rather jab hot needles in my eyes than witness a day where either of the current candidates become the new face of the country. What baffles me is the way society has been captivated by a woman showing interest in traditionally feminine things, and somehow made it headline news, like we haven’t collectively encouraged and perpetuated these behaviours. Her status as a politician somehow renders this behaviour as out of the ordinary. Her femininity has been weaponised against her.

The fact the conversation took place at a global political event is almost irrelevant. Need I remind you of the plethora of scandals to have come out of Number 10 downing street this past 18 months. The idea behind the event remains the same: politics and fashion are not mutually exclusive interests.

In fact, there is actually a long and intertwined history of fashion being politicised. Stretching back to the Middle Ages when sumptuary laws prevented commoners from dressing above their station, to the Black Panthers donning their iconic leather jacket and beret to both seize power and resist it. Politics has never been the binary subject the patriarchy wished it to be. Now, with fashion being increasingly recognised as an expressive and powerful tool used across all genders, the line between the two is blurred.

To my utter dismay, a glitter confetti canon isn’t suddenly released into a woman’s brain when we see a pretty dress. So, until then, we will all have to live with the stark reality that women are still aware of what grievous condition the world is in after having devoured a fashion magazine. But more than that, the ferocity of women in politics must be acknowledged, as they can be both professionally capable and fashionable, all whilst wearing heels.

*Perspectives does not claim ownership rights over photo used.

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