Tatty or tarty, jeans got our vote this year

The fashion gurus promised miniskirts. Annalisa Barbieri on why it didn't happen

Earlier this year, we were promised a trend - a trend not particularly new, more rediscovered: miniskirts. This summer, the pundits said, the mini would release women's knees from the peekaboo they had been forced to play for the past few seasons with the on-the-knee skirt. Once again, we would see thigh and maybe even catch a glimpse of bottom. What jolliness there would be - after all, it's difficult to take life seriously when the miniskirt is around. Conrad Black, the proprietor of the Telegraph Group, which supported the mini over the maxi a decade ago, would have been cheering.

But, like so much of what is promised - fashion is so like politics - that isn't what we got. Instead of flesh, we got denim. We got jeans. Dark jeans, light jeans, very tight jeans, very flared jeans, jeans not so much low on the hips as skimming the pubis, snow-washed jeans, marble-washed jeans.

Jeans with graffiti are particularly hot, as are jeans by Lucky, Mavi or Juicy, which have replaced Earl, which replaced Evisu, which replaced Levis, which are now so yesterday's jeans that they are almost on the revival circuit. What happened?

Those designers - Celine, Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Sonia Rykiel et al - may have wanted us to buy their very short skirts, and women in Italy, France and Russia did. But British girls don't like wearing minis in the summer. Miniskirts won't really be evident in this country until the winter.

Then, girls in the south of England can wear theirs with woolly tights and boots so that they don't have to show yards of flesh, thus largely desexing it. And women in the north will use the precious extra inches minis provide, compared to their summer wardrobes, to combat the cold of winter frosts.

It is not such a surprise that, instead of minis, we (I say "we", but neither minis nor jeans were a viable option for me after 1984) turned to jeans. Although they seem total opposites, they are actually very similar. Both show leg, albeit one by tight cladding and the other by honest exposure. Both are seen as sartorially subversive - even if they don't piss off your mum and dad, they rub society up the wrong way.

In most situations where denim is not acceptable, very short skirts also would be frowned upon. But, with jeans, this has caused a modern-day dilemma. Is it acceptable to wear a pair of jeans to an event if they cost more than £1,000 and are made by Gucci?

When do they stop being jeans and start being posh pants made of denim?

Despite the designer jean offerings - and there are plenty, from Helmut Lang to Stella McCartney, Dolce e Gabbana and Versace - both minis and jeans are still the uniform of the disaffected. And they both usually have two hits in a person's life: as a teenager (rebelling against the parents) and again when the person is trying to recapture his or her youth (rebelling against a society that considers them too old). Jeans and minis are seldom for those with proper jobs and pensions, and certainly not for politicians.

In his book Cleavage: essays on sex, stars and aesthetics, Wayne Koestenbaum writes that politicians in casual clothes (of which jeans are king) come across as "fake and arrogant" because the normal person wears such things off duty: "They wear play clothes when they're not being seen . . . To wear play clothes to be seen is at the level of a charade." Certainly, we flinch when we see Tony Blair in his saggy- bottomed jeans - we do not like to think of our Prime Minister as being off duty. During the US presidential campaign last year, Al Gore got a lot of stick for appearing in jeans, while his competition, the man who finally won the presidency, was always in tailor-made suits. Don't forget, though, that Gore actually notched up more votes.

Last summer, after 28 years of trying, Swaziland finally managed to ban miniskirts from schools - they spread HIV, don't you know? Four years ago, the first thing the president of Congo did when he came to power was to ban the mini. Clearly, it was worth overthrowing a government for that.

We should take note of this current fashion for jeans and the mini - the two most contentious items in a wardrobe - in the same year. Perhaps it is time to rethink what we regard as acceptable and respectable. We think we can read meanings in the unconscious metaphors people signal with their clothes (so, for example, we prefer our authority figures in suits, not "tatty" denim or "tarty" minis). But in so doing, we are fools. Our nemesis could come wearing jeans, or a mini, but just as easily a tailor-made suit.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”


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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