It takes three days to make a bin bag dress, replete with a pigeon-on-a-bin-lid fascinator, mini-bin clutch and rubbish-appliquéd train. So the decision by Daisy May Cooper, co-writer and actress in BBC3’s This Country, to wear this unique “about five quid” home-made frock to the TV Baftas, donating the price of a “normal dress” to a food bank instead, was made just before the shameful news that a government department has had to set its very own food bank for its staff.
A government whose previous incarnation’s austerity policies coincided with a 173 per cent rise in Britons’ food bank usage from 2013/14-2018/19 now sees its lowest-paid staff going hungry, thanks to a financial muck-up at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Cooper, nominated best female performer in a comedy programme, wasn’t responding to one political blip, though, because food banks’ very existence are a tragic symptom of post-austerity UK.
Some politicians, whose own interactions with the public resemble a This Country-style mockumentary sitcom, regard food banks as nothing more than a triumph of volunteers’ and donators’ generosity. But think about a food bank’s beneficiaries for longer than it takes to stage a photo opportunity, and its clear these are markets of a kind, where the country’s most disadvantaged trade their pride for whatever sustenance has been kindly donated. With her dress, Cooper’s relinquished her own pride to draw attention to those in need.
This Country holds a mirror up to a Cotswolds life that is more magnolia pebbledash, vacant bus shelters and PVC windows than creeping wisteria, jaunts to Soho Farmhouse and a £25,000 shepherd’s hut in the garden. So Cooper’s outfit fit like a glove.
It’s also notable that stars of the Met Ball’s bombastic and ornate parade of feathers, would, a week after attempting to go camp, share a red carpet with a woman dressed as a literal campsite. In this, the thick polyethylene layers of single-use plastic also had a double meaning, neatly demonstrated by Cooper’s inclusion on various lifestyle websites’ worst dressed lists.
The garment, created by Cooper’s mum and a couple of mates, was an indictment of red carpet beauty standards, where glossy beauty is prized over comfort – and, if some of those Met Ball get-ups are anything to go by, meaning. Cooper has a habit of doing red carpets differently, turning up last year in an out-sized Swindon FC T-shirt. This year, when the BBC’s Lizo Mzimba asked Cooper about the dress, she explained: “If I wore a normal dress that’d cost a lot of money… so I thought I’d donate that money to a foodbank and wear a bin instead.” But a normal dress for the red carpet isn’t a normal dress for anywhere else – not least when it comes to cost.
Perversely, when you consider that food bank statistic, the more high profile a performer becomes, the more free stuff they get sent. The red carpet is a market of sorts, too: the trade-off is that the famous person is clothed for the night in return for providing a brand or designer free advertising. If Cooper even had to consider buying her own dress for the event, though, it’s clear that access to this market remains exclusive.
Comedian Lolly Adefope’s resplendent rainbow dress by Kitty Joseph proves that some designers aren’t afraid to dress plus-size women, who, perhaps partly by virtue of their size, aren’t so famous as their slim counterparts. But her outfit was a very welcome exception to the rule that designers would do anything not to align their brand with a woman bigger than a size 10.
Cooper, enveloped in warm plastic on a sunny early summer evening, made a bold and necessary point that food banks are sadly vital to so many people. But it’s a shame that her own experience carries its own unfairness. Cooper probably would have turned down the offer of a free glitzy frock, but the option would have been nice. The only thing more righteous than making a political point by wearing a literal bin instead of something bought on the high street is turning down a mega-wealthy designer to do the same.
Sophie Wilkinson is a freelance journalist who specialises in entertainment, celebrity, gender and sexuality.