A woman in shoes by Christian Louboutin. Photo: Getty
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The empress’s old clothes: who are women dressing for, anyway?

Most of us will have had the sensation, at one time or another, of feeling as though we were dressed up as someone else. A new book and an exhibition explore what it means to be a "woman in clothes".


There’s a scene in the second series of the BBC’s Sherlock in which the detective goes to visit Irene Adler – the woman who will become the woman. She is accused of blackmailing a princess with kinky photographs, so Sherlock decides to dress up as a vicar in order to gain access to her flat. But Irene is ahead of him; she knows who her visitor is and she knows what he does. When her assistant asks her what outfit she will wear to greet him, she replies simply: “The battle dress.”

A moment later, she is standing in front of Sherlock. She is completely naked. His eyes scan her body, drawing only a confused blank where he would expect the detail of a cuff or the bulge of a pocket to give up its secrets. She turns the tables on him, pointing out the ridiculous subterfuge of his clerical collar. “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait . . . I think you’re damaged, delusional and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.”

Most of us will have had the sensation, at one time or another, of feeling as though we were dressed up as someone else. For a job interview, you become a neater, smarter version of yourself, for instance. We stubbornly cling to the “traditional” white wedding dress, even though it became a tradition only a century ago. And yet something of ourselves always bleeds into the image: everyone has a friend who has only to touch a freshly ironed shirt to crumple it, or one who can mysteriously carry off styles that make us look like unformed dough. And, unlike Irene Adler, most of us are unwilling to opt out of this system of signification altogether (not least because it’s cold out).

Both Women in Clothes – a new book ­edited by the New York literary darlings Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton – and the “Women Fashion Power” exhibition at the Design Museum in London attempt to unweave the stories we tell through our dress. Women in Clothes is ultimately more successful: as the cover proudly announces, it features contributions from 639 women, including the artist Miranda July, the writer Kiran Desai and everyone’s favourite hook for a comment piece, Lena Dunham. By doing this, it underscores the universality of the system, even as it highlights the diversity of its expressions.

The book is a ragbag, designed like a scrapbook and punctuated with grids of single items – tights, buttons, logo T-shirts – from various individuals’ wardrobes. The effect is to make you realise how much time and mental effort women expend on their clothes and also how much they rely on them to tell stories, either about where they come from or who they want to be.

There’s a common thread linking the women wearing their grandmother’s wedding ring and Emily Gould, the favourite of internet hate-readers, who writes about blowing her tax rebate on a pink Marc Jacobs purse. “In 2004, Marc anything was the ultimate status symbol for a specific kind of New York City woman, the kind I aspired to be: someone with natural charisma, a cool job, effortless and understated sexiness and plenty of cash,” she writes. It cost hundreds of dollars but, six years later, battered by wear, she sold it at a yard sale for just $10. High-fashion items are worth only what someone is willing to pay for them.

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That is certainly the case in Women in Clothes. One of the most revealing interviews is Heti’s discussion with the NS writer Juliet Jacques, who is transsexual. To be accepted as a woman, Jacques not only had to learn a new way of dressing but new mannerisms, a new voice – even a new way of sneezing. “Women are socially policed to behave with more restraint,” she tells Heti.

Clothes are a language and it’s only because we are so well trained to read them that we don’t notice. The nuances of historical dress are quickly lost to us but we can easily tell the difference between a City slicker and a goth, a hippie and a hipster. Women in Clothes addresses one of the hoariest questions in fashion: who are women dressing for, anyway? It’s surely mostly for other women, who are far more adept at reading the tiny inflections of meaning in a cut or a label.

To attract men, the rules are simpler, though that crudeness brings its own problems. Here’s one contributor, Augusta Lee: “I feel like it’s a meat market and a fashion show when I go to church. Girls dress up to try and get married.” And here’s Sasha Grey, who used to make the kind of pornography that other people in the porn business worried was too extreme. “I like to dress up and be wanted, but at this time [after ending a long-term relationship] I didn’t know what I wanted, so I didn’t want to project myself in that way. I guess I have a disdain for young women who dress half-naked but scowl when you glance their way.”

Grey’s comment underlines the idea of women’s fashion as plumage. In previous eras, there was a more straightforward class division in dress: the 16th-century aristocrat was just as gorgeously clothed and jewelled as his wife, in contrast to working people of both sexes. But a series of social shifts, including the advent of mass production in the 18th century and Beau Brummell’s creation of the three-piece suit around the turn into the 19th, put paid to that. Now, the male CEO wears ostensibly the same outfit as his graduate trainee. It is left to subtle details such as watches, or an expensive cut or fabric, to reassert his dominance.

A woman photographs one of Margaret Thatcher's dresses at the Design Museum's exhibition.


This approach to power dressing leaves women handicapped. As the Design Museum’s exhibition demonstrates, some women adopt a kind of “man camouflage” – think Angela Merkel in her Pantone three-buttoned suits, or Hillary Clinton’s severe business wear. Others head in the opposite direction, hamming up the femininity while swearing blind that uncomfortable cantilevering leaves them feeling “empowered” (possibly in the same type of interview in which they claim to “just be really good at multitasking” or boast about getting up at 4.30am to do an hour’s Pilates before the children wake up).

The old double bind is on full display here: women are judged on their looks but also judged for caring about their looks. You can be decreed either dowdy or vain. For women in politics, the choice is particularly depressing: the Daily Mail devoted a double-page spread this summer to the “Downing Street catwalk” as new female ministers were appointed. Baroness Stowell, the new leader of the Lords, was described as “a bit mother-of-the-bride”, while Anna Soubry was chastised for having “the air of a Mrs Thatcher tribute, fake posh voice, tough manner and everything”. Esther McVey, meanwhile, was a “thigh-flashing vision in grey check by Vivienne Westwood . . . She needs to tone it down a little for attending cabinet meetings.” No wonder this exhibition quotes Miriam González Durántez, the wife of Nick Clegg, saying that she has little idea how much she spends on clothes but it’s “much more since Nick is in politics”.

The strongest section of the show addresses the quagmire that a powerful woman in a man’s world has to navigate every morning. The 26 women who have contributed an outfit are from very different backgrounds and cultures but many face the same struggle: finding the Goldilocks point of fitted but not too fitted, feminine but not too feminine, attractive without being overtly sexual. Little wonder that so many, when they find a formula, stick to it rigidly – in the fairground mirror logic of fashion, if you wear the same type of clothes long enough, it goes through frumpy and out the other side into “a signature style”. (Cue a picture of the Queen in black heels and a block-colour coat, with matching hat and bag.)

The saddest part of the exhibition, however, is its circularity. It begins with 19th-century corsets, nipping the waist to waspish proportions, and then charts the history of the “land girls”, in their practical overalls, and 1960s women ditching starched tailoring for free-and-easy miniskirts. We get zips and nylons and high street labels that make fashion accessible to everyone.

Then we finish with three sets of Christian Louboutin heels – none lower than six inches. These are “limousine shoes”, hard to wear if your job involves anything other than tottering in and out of cabs or being rented by the hour by oligarchs. No matter how hard we try to break down the walls that imprison women, someone will always stick a Swarovski crystal on them and sell them back to us as fashion. 

“Women in Clothes” is published by Particular Books (£24). “Women Fashion Power” is at the Design Museum, London SE1, until 26 April 2015

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.