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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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