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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.