Remember the Blair Babes? The patronising epithet was bad enough, but the stunt of surrounding the new Premier with 101 women MPs was uncomfortable to watch. And probably worse to participate in; a cliché in which they must have felt used rather than celebrated. Despite the admirable drive to get more women into parliament, to the extent that Labour imposed all-women short lists on a number of constituencies, there is something sad about this group. Somehow their outfits – crafted by spin-doctors who required them to stand (or sit if they were a wheelchair user) around their waving boss – are a little bit off. They remind me of the Hillary-Angela look. Samey. Conservative. Overly colourful for the sake of it. FIve stayed away or had a good excuse but the rest are conformed. The individuality of each outfit is cynically crafted. Probably, for most women in politics, this is just how it is. It’s known as FIFO. Fit In or F Off. This photograph captures powerlessness.
It’s interesting to me that the candidates had been advised by Barbara Follett (now in the House of Lords) about the colours and shapes they should wear. I note there are two or three in camel and cream – generally good shades for red heads. A few dark haired women are in predictable but acceptable navy suits. But a dozen or so are in red suits. Have you ever seen a man in red suit? Probably not as can look a bit startling. Especially when there are several of them.The jackets are invariably long (even allowing for fashions) Very few wear trousers. Hardly any one is in a jacket and co-ordinating skirt. And no-one, as far as I can see, has been allowed out in a dress. Almost to a woman they are in knee-length or longer skirts, the plainest black court shoes and clear tights. I don’t think there is anyone with long or grey hair – it seems that putting the Clairol on was also required to get the “image” right. We have a safe, respectable look – the sort of clothes you might see at a golf club or on a head teacher from Glamorgan. Uniform. Formulaic. Safe. Inoffensive. This is essentially a photograph of women without authority – they are supporting Tony, not the other way round. While they lack real authority, they don’t seem sympathetic or approachable either. Despite the cacophony of colour they are just peas in a pod.
Let’s have a look at three of the women who were successful from that intake – Flint, Blears and Smith. They had important jobs in Brown’s government and their appearance is considerably better. Personally I dislike the harsh hair colours but otherwise I would say they pull it off. Caroline choses a black coat with leather trim, attractive shoes and smart trousers. She wears her hair long. I find the black a bit overwhelming, but overall it’s a flattering look. Hazel is tiny but she looks well dressed in her deep purple coat with a waterfall front, a nice silk scarf and an interesting brooch. Jackie is in trousers too – a classic blue-grey trouser suit with a cream blouse. They all look fairly normal, much more confident and individual. I wouldn’t restyle any of them but I would get their sleeves taken up.
There’s someone else I want to have a look at – Teresa May. She is senior Cabinet member of the present government and she is tall with slim legs. She has natural grey hair although I preferred it when she had a shorter cut. She sometimes gets it right but I fear she is a little too “fashion-forward”. She wears Vivienne Westwood, which is surely a cause for celebration, but somehow she doesn’t quite get the essence of the piece. I really don’t think you can wear statement items like this with Marks and Sparks accessories.
And finally let’s have a look at someone really interesting.
Mrs Thatcher managed to fit in and stand out. She wears an utterly classic, regal outfit – the simplest Tory-blue dress and matching jacket, pearls and a silver brooch, neat hair and court shoes. It certainly achieves the level of authority required in a Prime Minister. How do the Blair Babes compare?
I love your blogs Kate! You are a truly talented writer.
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Nice piece -you sashay effortlessly from sewing to semiology – when I was at Coopers we had a talk from Barbara F on how to present ourselves – usual Carry On style jokes about dressing for the boardroom not the bedroom for women and Freudian nonsense about length of ties for the guys – the best looking male partner – who was dubbed the Omar Sharif of consulting fell fast asleep with boredom – best advice we got was from another partner – don’t wear a shirt with a pocket – that’s for milkmen- if you dared to wear brown shoes you were asked if you had just been playing golf – the real distinction in dress was between PAs and the consultant women – the latter must have spent hours ironing those 90’s blouses of Eiffel Tower complexity – right back to work
Totally agree about politicians’ uniformity of dress but all have professions have uniforms. I remember my father explaining why I had to wear school uniform which I hated. He said is was way disguise to individual wealth and give a team or collegiate status. i just hated the ties!
I was thinking about the ‘Blair babes’ in the context of your earlier post about women in politics and thinking about how things have changed for the better. Stella Creasy MP, for example, appears to dress in clothes that she likes and feels comfortable in and doesn’t appear to be trying to fit in. And that seems to be the way she conducts herself generally – as her own person.
Those long sleeves! One male CEO of an organisation I worked for was short and his jacket sleeves were about three inches too long. Not being able to get himself a jacket that fitted didn’t help his credibility in the organisation!
I agree about Mrs T. For the era and her position she did get that right.
I will have to stay out of the political end of this discussion (as I know nothing) .but…geese louise….I know what its like to wear a sleeve that is too long….and its sooo uncomfortable…….. eekkk………. that would just drive me insane, how can they stand it???
On the topic of uniforms… I remember the highlight of my teenage years was getting dressed for school.( I had vogue photographs from their glossy magazines decorating my room…. dream material…. .and if I had to wear a uniform………good grief…I’m sure I would have been more difficult and rebellious then I already was…….however, on the other hand.. I was trying to wear a uniform of the “too cool to be schooled ” ….. I was still trying to be FIFO (love that ;~) — and trust me I will be using it…hahaha……”oh I see you are wearing your FIFO today” hahaha. )——the uniform of who we are is , unavoidable if you ask me. We make statements with our clothing…the group we belong to, professional lawyers, mommies, artists……..and speaking of artists… I just don’t’ get the over the top creative attire…….. artist need money>funding…and the people providing the funding , government grants etc . are more comfortable with conservative dress…..there fore , FIFO…is my advice…to a point. Once again..I think the goal is to conform to a point, but provide some small elements of personal statement…….. because, well…. we don’t need Boring, now do we? Just like in art…we need , unity , balance and harmony…but tooo much is……….boreing.
As always Kate you have provided a wonderful discussion… and excellent references… keep em coming.
What lovely comments – thank you everyone. I agree we all wear uniforms – that’s the fitting in bit. And I agree with Joyce that if you don’t realise you have a different audience it can be disastrous. When I go to the City to ask for money or even to a Board meeting I always dress more formally than an everyday at work day, where approachability is more important than demonstrating authority.
There is the lovely bit in Bridget Jones when she wears a bunny girl outfit at what she thinks is a fancy dress party, or Mr Bean wearing his unfashionable suit and tie to the beach – the comedic effect of getting it wrong is such a reliable story-line.