Power dressing: why female MPs have faced a century of scrutiny
- Researching her new book, the member for Leeds West found that what women wear to the Commons has long been an issue
Mar 9, 2019-
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first female MP to take her seat in parliament. Existing members “would rather had have a rattlesnake than me”, Nancy Astor reflected. Women in the chamber threatened the cosy club that had existed for several hundred years.My new book, Women of Westminster, tells the story of what women in parliament have achieved. Issues such as child benefit, abortion, equal pay, maternity leave, Sure Start, action against sexual harassment and more found a sisterhood of cheerleaders in female MPs.
But I was also struck when researching the history by the focus, since day one, on how female MPs dressed—so often used to trivialise or objectify. But female MPs have also used fashion and appearance to tell us something about them and their politics, often to great effect.
It was inevitable that women would stand out. In 1919, men wore morning suits in the chamber. So the question of what to wear was one of many Astor had to contemplate as she travelled by train from Plymouth to take her seat. Her decisions set a precedent – and something for her female successors to emulate or rebel against. In a black two-piece suit, white silk blouse, tricorn hat and white gardenia in her buttonhole, Astor dressed as if going to church ‘in her Sunday best’.
For the first female MPs, clothing posed a dilemma. If they dressed too formally, they were called sexless bluestockings; if they wore eyecatching or feminine outfits, they were trivialised and condescended to.
Some female MPs, including Astor, consciously eschewed fashion or femininity. Susan Lawrence, elected for Labour in 1923, asked a department store to send half-a-dozen inexpensive dresses to her office, ‘briefly raising her head from her papers to select one by pointing with a pencil’.
But other women embraced the difference. Liberal MP Lady Vera Terrington said the assumption that she should wear a ‘dull little frock with a Quaker collar’, was ‘all humbug’. Labour firebrand Ellen Wilkinson loved colourful clothing and ignored Astor when she implored her to dress more soberly.
When Jennie Lee was elected in 1929 at the age of 24, the press regularly focused on her clothing. One newspaper said she took ‘the Speaker’s breath away’, with ‘the assurance of a Bond-Street mannequin’ as she walked into the chamber in a bright green dress ‘of the clinging variety’.
There was also the ‘hat question’. The convention in public meetings was that women showed respect by being covered, and men by being uncovered. Before Astor took her seat, the Times speculated: “No doubt she will wear her hat in the House, as she would do in a church or chapel.” But, it asked, “If she wears a hat, should she remove it when she rises to speak, as male MPs are bound to do?” It was a dilemma, permeated with annoyance at the rules of the chamber being challenged by the inappropriate presence of women. A Daily Express headline screamed, ‘Hat Problem Still Unsolved’.
It remained unsolved into the 1920s: in 1925, Wilkinson was criticised for not wearing a hat when addressing the speaker. In 1929, Lawrence’s usual sobriety saw a brief interlude when, wishing to speak but having no hat, she placed an order paper over her head. The speaker ruled that in future women could remain uncovered when speaking in the chamber. The hat problem, at least, was settled.
Even in 1945, when the number of female MPs swelled to 24, they were still a novelty. When Labour’s Jean Mann rose to ask a question, members whispered that she was ‘dressed like a bride’. And when Wilkinson, as minister of education in 1945, was answering questions at the dispatch box wearing a green-feathered hat, she was greeted by opposition jeers.
Labour’s Barbara Castle actively cultivated a housewife-superstar aesthetic, and was once interviewed at home in her pink mules, long cigarette holder poised in manicured hands. “Plums don’t fall into plain girls’ laps,” she once declared. She defied the convention that redheads should wear quiet colours, sporting bright red dresses and ostentatious jewellery as well as going to the hairdresser’s twice weekly.
This persona served Castle well, solidifying her status as the most famous female MP of the era—and at that stage probably of all time—with speculations that she could become the first woman prime minister. But it also meant she was at times treated with derision and suspicion. One cabinet colleague alleged that ‘she only has to waggle that bottom of hers and she gets it all her own way’ with prime minister Harold Wilson. Castle did not make it to the very top, but the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, replicated Castle’s style. Well-coiffured hair, bright blue suits and of course the handbag were Thatcher’s trademark—a source of both appeal and caricature.
When the now Mother of the House, Harriet Harman, was first elected in 1982, she was sworn in, heavily pregnant, in a red velvet maternity gown. As more women entered the professions, retailers updated their ranges. Harman remembers being overjoyed when Marks & Spencer introduced women’s trouser suits—it felt like you were going to work rather than to a ‘picnic in the countryside’, and helped a new generation of feminist MPs be taken seriously. The 1990s saw a new wave of female Labour MPs, helped by all-women shortlists. Condescendingly called ‘Blair’s Babes’, many of these Labour women were given fashion advice by Labour MP Barbara Follett, who ‘did their colours’. Subsequent photos of New Labour women were a rainbow sea of shoulder-padded suit jackets.
Today, women are much more visible in the Commons, with 208 female MPs out of 650. But, perhaps predictably, the same judgments are levelled at their wardrobes, as highlighted by the controversy over Theresa May’s leather trousers and kitten heels. When I interviewed the prime minister for my book, she told me she has had “double-page spreads on ‘am I the new Cara Delevingne’, and ‘how not to dress over 50’” in the same newspaper. In 2005 Jo Swinson, elected as the youngest MP at 25, was invited to pose in school uniform by a newspaper and in a bikini for a lads’ mag.
Wilkinson said in 1928 that women had “starved in prison, they have given their lives, in order that women might sit in this House and take part in the legislation of the country”. But the battle to have women’s voices heard was not over when they arrived in Westminster. When Astor was attempting to take her seat in the Commons, male colleagues tried to physically block her path. In the 1960s Shirley Williams remembers being routinely pinched on the bottom by male MPs. She initiated a campaign of stiletto-wearing to stamp on the feet of offenders. The potential for abuse is today exacerbated by social media.
The fight for equality is a battle to be seen and heard. But the price of political power has been the scrutiny, and sometimes vilification, of women’s bodies and wardrobes. In part this is intended to silence or belittle us. It has not, and will not, work—as evidenced by the determination of female MPs to challenge expectations and take the centre stage of politics.
I hope that the next hundred years will see an end to abuse and objectification, and that women—and men–will be judged for what they say and do.
— © 2019 The Guardian
Published: 09-03-2019 09:50