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Margaret Thatcher: a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits

The V&A is wrong to turn down Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe; we can’t deny the importance of her sex appeal, used to disarm male colleagues in a hostile environment.

The article was originally published on 10/4/2013

You can ask if Thatcher was a feminist, but it's a bit like asking if the lioness who ate your leg off is a feminist. There's a critical difference between a woman who exercises individual power, and a person who believes that the unequal distribution of power between men and women at large needs to be redressed: Thatcher was definitively the former and not the latter.

But even if she didn't acknowledge gender politics, she still had to exist within them, and her public image was defined by sex - both her gender and her sexuality. Margaret Thatcher was sexy, and she knew it and used it to gain and maintain power.

Westminster politics are a hostile enough environment for women now. For Thatcher to survive in the parliament of the 1950s, she had to be extraordinarily determined and resilient. To rise to the highest office, she had to do more than just resist sexism: she had to use it to her advantage. What else could she do? Being a woman in power made her a freak.

You only have to look at the film and photos from her rule to see how shockingly she stood out from the mass of men who comprised both her own cabinet and her peers as world leaders, a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits.

She had to decide whether to let that freakishness be perceived as a flaw, or turn in into a strength. With her pristine lipstick and pussybow blouses, her handbag and housework metaphors, Thatcher exuded femininity.

And the less ladylike the environment, the more insistently feminine her look seemed to become, until she achieved a kind of camp at times: a primly headscarfed head poking from the turret of a tank. Having an image that reinforced gender conventions made it much easier for her to defy them in practice: the predominance of men over women seemed secure as long as ultra-ladylike Thatcher was the only exception.

The Conservative Shadow Cabinet at the State Opening of Parliament in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

One of her greatest propaganda wins was establishing a reputation for frugality through the story that she bought her own ironing board to Downing Street: the anecdote turns up repeatedly in her obituaries, even though her claims on the public purse for living expenses in recent years suggest that parsimony wasn't quite such a priority for her. But the ironing board was the perfect emblem for her rule, because it united her command of the national economy with the acceptably female realm of domestic economy.

And of all the slogans that opponents tried to pin on her, the one that stuck hardest was "Milk Snatcher". Documents released in 2001 showed that Thatcher had opposed the policy of withdrawing free school milk, but the monstrous anti-maternal image of a woman minister denying milk to children seemed to have an indestructible power. When Spitting Image satirised her, it stripped away her femininity. "The whole image was of an impenetrable hard body, the hair and clothes," says Sue Nicholson, who made costumes for the puppets. "As her term in office progressed, she was portrayed in a more masculine way, ending up as a cigar-smoking Winston Churchill look-a-like."

Mannish, mad-eyed Thatcher bullying her cabinet was a glorious caricature, but it overlooked how much she used flirting as means of control. In Jon Snow's retrospective Maggie and Me, over and over her former colleagues recall her ability to disarm them by coming slightly too close - and how ill-equipped they were to deal with it, when their only experience of commanding women up till then had been the matron at their public school.

Alan Clark recorded his feelings on her "very small feet and attractive ankles" in his diary (they were lusty feelings, of course, this being Clark); Francois Mitterand said she had the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe". No one ever considered the erotic potential of Ted Heath, and of course the objectification of Thatcher was wildly sexist - but given that it was probably unavoidable, she played it cannily by making a weapon of it rather than a weakness.

It's hard to imagine any female politician now adopting the style Thatcher did, but then no female politician has to negotiate the circumstances Thatcher did. Is it demeaning to mark a female politician's death with speculation about which leaders of the free world she probably fancied?

Certainly. But in Thatcher's case, I don't think we can understand her without understanding how much sex contributed to what she was.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Vinyl makes us happy, here's why we're buying more of it

This once retro format is no longer the preserve of hipsters and music heads. 

So, vinyl sales are up again, with data today showing that sales of records have exceeded that of downloads for the first time. The forces behind this are a combination of the rational and the fashionable, to quote my friend Jim, a Glaswegian music nut in his mid 40s with a family and a sideline in buying and selling records on online marketplace Discogs. He packages up records to men like him who spent a lifetime in clubs and record shops but don’t go out any more, and who crave the cultural connection and community that music offers. Jim’s Discogs sales spike on Friday and Saturday nights when aging music heads drunkenly add another of his vinyl gems to basket. Sales drop off in January, he hypothesises, because his buyers are too sober and broke to pick up that Can “Tago Mago” UK original pressing in envelope sleeve for £140.  

Music released on vinyl is purposefully, trenchantly niche. It celebrates the fact that music isn’t for everyone: a limited edition pressing of a few hundred copies on Bradley Zero’s excellent Peckham label Rhythm Section International may only have an audience marginally above that number. But that doesn’t matter because there are thousands of niches being covered by record labels and private presses releasing new vinyl onto the market, as well as a mixed economy of places to buy a Guadeloupian zouk reissue (highly recommended) or a limited split 7” from Savages. Established record stores like Rough Trade continue to thrive in parallel to their own digital operations. You can buy vinyl direct from the artist on Bandcamp. The Independent Label Market host events across the UK which transform independent labels into market stall holders where they can sell their fresh musical produce direct to shoppers who have record bags not wicker baskets. It might be pricey, but the high resale value of your new vinyl means you can’t really lose, even if you decide that you spent £20-30 on a duffer.   

There’s also a practical reason for releasing music on vinyl, simply because there’s no point putting niche releases on streaming services because the returns are so low. CD sales are falling – they’ve dropped 84% in a decade in the US – although that hasn’t stopped French band Justice from hedging their bets: their last release “Woman” came on a new format that was one side CD and one side vinyl.

A caveat: don’t take the figures at face value. Record sales are overtaking downloads – but that’s also because no-one buys downloads any more. Why would you when you can stream the new Solange album on Apple Music or get lost in the Bandcamp rabbit hole for happy hours at a time?

There’s also a caveat on the quality thing. People often say that music sounds better on vinyl, and there is some truth in it, particularly if you’re a fan of the warming tones of a lovely crackle – but the argument fails to hold water when you’re talking about buying music on high quality wavs. These files, which contain more musical information than MP3s, which are known as “lossy” files because they literally chuck out a tonne of the sonic information in order to create a smaller file, sound great. But they kill your storage and most laptops and phones start to complain pretty damn quickly if you buy too many – unless like the record-buying hardcore, you’re also shelling out on giga-massive external hard drives. The quality argument doesn’t explain the popularity of coloured vinyl and picture discs either, which audiophiles will tell you sound distinctly inferior to gold-standard 180g black vinyl.  Something else must be going on, and our desire for vinyl tells us something about what we’re missing.

“I think people are bored of a digital way of listening,” says Nina Hervé of Rough Trade. “People want community again. Vinyl is a way of sharing your music with people in a communal space or by sharing pictures of what you’ve bought on Instagram. Records are the opposite of listening to music on headphones, which is a way of not talking to people on a train or in the office. It’s communal.”

Essentially, vinyl is a type of plastic, made from oil-derivative ethylene. Plastic is basically compressed sunshine, the product of ancient forests and the sunlight they absorbed, transformed into a conduit for another ancient human need – music. No wonder it makes us happy, and no wonder we’re buying more of it right now.

Emma Warren is a freelance editor and journalist.