Handbags, gowns and girl armour: Laurie Penny on feminist fashion

Power comes at a cost.

This week, the Guardian told me to turn up at their offices with my rucksack and talk to a lady. It'll be great, they said, you can talk about feminism and fashion, and because I love the Guardian, I obeyed. The resultant jolly interview, in which I look and sound precisely as baffled and overwhelmed as I was by the whole affair whilst trying to jam in some points about Marxism, gender and consumerism, can be read on the paper's homesite. I have been trying to put my finger on quite what it was about the experience itself that put me so very far outside my comfort zone, and it is this: I just felt scruffy.

I was asked along to make a case about shopping and the banality of consumer choice as a model of empowerment. Justine Picardie, my fellow interviewee, said lots of interesting things about Chanel as an icon and how empowering fashion can be, and I suddenly felt terribly unglamorous, as I usually do in 'proper media' situations. Sitting in those shiny offices, with my ripped grey dress and straggly dyed hair, I found myself, all at once, anxious to prove that just because I believe, with all my heart, that there is more to a woman's life than how she looks and what she buys, that doesn't mean I'm not light-hearted, not fun, not a proper girl. That tension is such an important one in the way we talk and think about feminism.

The thing is that these things do matter; fashion, consumerism and style matter, they matter to women in particular because we fritter away so much of our time and energy and money, whether we want to or not, trying to negotiate those boundaries of gender and status that are mediated through clothes, hair, shoes, makeup, bags, accessories. These are the ways that we prove we are good women, good shoppers, people who know how to conform and consume and seduce, people who want to please, to fit in, no matter how complicated the rules or how high the stakes. Not for nothing are feminists so often stereotyped as ugly, unfeminine, shaven-headed, androgynously dressed. To want any type of power other than the power to seduce, to please, to entertain and comfort and excite is to forfeit one's womanhood on some vital aesthetic level.

Consumer feminism only condones the latter kind of empowerment, and it is a mitigated type of power, and it is not the same thing as control. If you want a vision of a future for feminism, imagine a high heel coming down on a woman's face, forever. At the same time, a vision of a future without dressing up would be a dull feminist utopia indeed.

This has been on my mind lately, because I'm in the middle of a process of what my mother calls 'smartening up'. This involves gradually easing away from my former aesthetic of shaved-head-and-baggy-black-cyber-gear - a hangover from the days when I used to work in a shop in Camden Market- and trying to accustom myself to the niceties of hairstyles, handbags and clothes that don't give the impression, at various meetings, that I've been up all night at the sort of club where they sell pink drinks to teenagers to stop them chewing off the insides of their own mouths. I am finding the whole process confusing, upsetting and expensive.

I've always been fascinated and infuriated by the way that one is obliged, as a woman, to purchase the trappings of one's own gender, and infuriated by the way the rules keep changing the deeper into the game you go. I've been getting into more and more professional situations where it is no longer okay to turn up with huge biker boots and a slash of clashing lipstick and expect to be taken seriously. As women, everything we wear is a statement, and we have no right to remain sartorially silent. We negotiate a field of signifiers every time we open our wardrobes, or, in my case, every time we rummage through the clothes-pile on the bedroom floor.

Two weeks ago, I stayed with an impossibly glamorous friend who insisted upon dressing me up in her latest acquisition, an Alexander McQueen gown. I had never seen such a beautiful piece of clothing in my life, much less tried one on, but when she eventually persuaded me to do so, I stumbled out of her bathroom feeling like an animated doll, banging into things, blinking in uncomfortable confusion. I was afraid to sit down in the thing in case I damaged it. I was afraid to look in the mirror, in case I liked what I saw, and in case that mattered, but my friend made me look. And what I saw, underneath the gorgeous tailoring, the elaborate hairdo and the makeup, was a girl in battle armour.

"McQueen said the clothes he made were supposed to be armour for women," said my friend, taking a picture. Armour is just what that impossible dress was. Wearing it, I felt like a conscript in a war that I hadn't signed up for, a war that had almost nothing to do with fun. The simple joy and play of dressing up and experimenting with clothes and style seems so fraught with anxiety that I am beginning to wonder if we can ever start to reclaim it. Girl armour does give you power, but it comes at a cost.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.