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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Testing migrant children’s teeth for their age is not only immoral – it doesn’t work

Ministers have flirted with this idea for over a decade. It’s bad policy, as well as poor ethics.

This week, the Home Office finally ruled out the use of x-rays to establish the age of childhood migrants.

It’s welcome news, but this story predates the dispersal of the Calais “Jungle” camp. 

For over ten years, ministers in Conservative and Labour governments have flirted with these tests. And it’s been up to us – the practitioners who’d be expected to administer them – to pick holes in a policy that’s a great way of securing headlines, but simply cannot deliver on the claims made by its cheerleaders.

It goes without saying dentists are health professionals, not border guards. But our objections run deeper than that. And it’s worth revisiting the arguments, just in case future governments start grasping for silver bullets.

It’s ineffective

We can talk about philosophy later, but let’s start with a pretty fundamental objection: dental x-rays are simply not a reliable way of establishing age.

No two mouths are alike. I’ll add my own to that list, as I still sport two of my baby teeth.

Children and young people mature at different rates, so the level of accuracy in these tests changes with time. And these x-rays can estimate age in younger children much more accurately than in adolescents. So as children mature at different rates, the potential margin of error gets ever larger with age.

For example, the third molars, commonly known as wisdom teeth – the last permanent teeth to develop – can form any time between the ages of 16 and 23, and a small proportion of individuals never develop third molars at all (I’ll have to pop my name to that list too).

A 2010 study of 300 young people aged between 11 and 25, whose age was determined based on dental x-rays, showed this method of testing consistently over- or under-estimated age, with a two-year average difference between dental and known age.

So if you are searching for a litmus test that will tell you whether a subject is 17 or 19 years old you won’t find it here.

It’s inappropriate

A few MPs and pundits have found it hard to acknowledge the codes health practitioners sign up to, which make this test a no go.

We must always act in the best interest of our patients when providing a medical procedure. And it is beyond question that the process of radiography is a medical procedure that should be carried out only for medical purposes, and where the patient stands to benefit.

Now many people might not consider this test an invasive procedure. However, x-rays do carry a small risk of possible long-term physical impact, and current best practice in this area dictates that exposure to radiation should be kept as low as reasonably possible over a lifetime. They should be carried out sparingly and where there is a well-defined potential clinical benefit, which must always outweigh the potential clinical harm.

As taking x-rays to determine the age of an individual carries no clinical benefit, it frankly isn’t appropriate to expose a patient to the potential clinical harm it can cause.

It’s unethical

Our lawmakers cannot simply dispense with fundamentals like consent to show they are “taking action”.

It is a legal principle that before practitioners carry out any medical procedure, the recipient – or someone who can consent on their behalf – must be given a full understanding of the nature of the procedure, its significance, impact and potential consequences before signing up to it.

For the children arriving from Calais, this would be a difficult task without English as a first language. Consent may also be required from a suitable adult. Yes, these children may be unaccompanied, but it does not mean the need for valid consent and protecting the child’s best interests can simply be ignored.

The letter of the law might be inconvenient, but it is a requirement that can only be compromised where the urgency and necessity of the circumstances demand rapid action in a patient’s best interests. And even in these circumstances the validity of treatment has sometimes ended up being challenged in the courts.

Given that taking x-rays in order to determine age is not medically justifiable in the first place, the urgency justification really doesn’t come into play. And that means dental colleagues – in the absence of valid consent – could find themselves performing an act that constitutes a criminal battery.


In the past, ministers have debated whether there is a credible “public interest” case that might override these little legal or philosophical objections. But these practical and ethical concerns can’t really be separated.

But why bother constructing a case for a test that frankly isn’t much cop? Dentists can only hope the latest message from the Home Office marks the beginning of a consensus, which draws a line under a decade of wishful thinking.

Judith Husband, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group.