Illustration of politician Barbara Castle.
[Written by Ruth Underwood]
[Image Credits: Molly Mead]
When I was at school, I wanted to be a politician. I got accepted into politics courses at universities. However, almost every week I was pulled out of my politics class, because the head teacher wanted ‘a word’ with me. “This is a school, Ruth, not a fashion show”, she would say.
But it didn’t make me want to pull down my skirt or take off my makeup. It made me want to pull it up, and slather myself in eyeliner and lipstick. Every day I rolled up to school, nothing but an oversized fur jumper, fishnet tights, big clunky Dr Martens and a fur jacket on me, even in the Winter months. I wore eyeliner up to my hairline and glitter over my cheeks, I had a shaved back and sides haircut that was a different colour every week. I wanted my look to tell everyone, “this school can be my catwalk, and I can still get good grades”.
My head teacher was technically right. My school corridors were not catwalks; my school day was not a fashion show. However, this is the type of sentiment that journalists bring across when they write about women politicians. Often they condemn them for wearing, god forbid, the sort of colourful high-rise skirt that says: “I enjoy femininity”. It got me thinking, what if Westminster was a fashion show? General census in the media argues that women in politics should wear sensible trouser-suits in order to be taken seriously in a man’s world, the world of politics. She must leave the woman’s world of fashion and appropriate male style to be taken seriously. In order to be a politician, we should stop reading magazines, stop watching rom-coms and stop respecting the women who made the dresses we wear; when you enter a man’s world of work you can’t take your fellow women and the essence of femininity with you.
Barbara Castle angrily walked a male dominated catwalk. Castle is famous for two things: introducing the Equal Pay Act and dressing with a “superstar housewife aesthetic”. She never apologised for either. She held a long cigarette holder in her mouth and glamorously curled her hair. With rouged lips, she used her voice to successfully pass bills against hordes of male MPs who didn’t trust her. Being a woman MP isn’t about pretending to be a man to be successful, it’s about being successful as a woman.
Jacqueline Kennedy walked gracefully beside her husband along a male, media dominated catwalk, dressed head to toe in Chanel, suit, shoes and pillar-box hat. She wore garments made by a woman, for a woman. She held hands with the world of fashion and the world of politics and showed how powerful and intelligent beauty can be.
Fashion pervades every area of life, including work and identity. When I walked my catwalk, I wore my hair short. It wasn’t just about style; it was a way of telling people as soon as they saw me that I don’t put myself into a heteronormative box. My bright blue fur jacket was iconic of the history of queer fashion. We have never dressed in line with the norm, because we have never fitted in line with the norm. What’s the point in pretending? For us, nightclubs and fashion shows have been places where we have taken the lead, so it only made sense for me to make my school corridors my catwalk, because they were places where I could succeed.
For women who wear braids or head scarves, there is an element of choice to that, and it can often be for the purpose of showing people on first glance, “this is my identity”. Just because politics has been dominated by cis-het, white, Christian men, doesn’t mean that you should act as if you are exactly that to be taken seriously. Being an Afro-Caribbean politician can be a separate identity. When Moseley Braun was hounded by the white, male-dominated media for her braids, she positively replied, “I thought I looked really nice”. We can only be comfortable in ourselves through wearing what we feel comfortable in. In the same way, politicians (should) make policies that help people of various identities feel comfortable. While I was writing this article, I was thinking, what if queer politicians wore the club costumes that their community holds sacred, what if queer MPs ran for election, but dressed in signature McQueen’s pieces? We only think “that sounds silly” because the media has told us that there is a thick line between professionalism and style. There’s nothing that separates how intelligent and passionate someone is about politics from what they wear and who they are, apart from archaic social norms.
I dropped my dream of becoming a politician for my dream of dressing a politician, and I say she can wear whatever she wants.