“Views not shoes,” declares the Fawcett Society in its new campaign to monitor the ways in which female politicians are subjected to sexist reporting. “Are we given shoe commentary rather than hearing what women have to say on the economy?” asks the society; to which, I am afraid, the answer appears to be yes. But what might come as a surprise is that most of the commentary doesn’t concern women – not even Theresa May, she of the leopard-print kitten heels and thigh-high patent leather boots; or Nicola Sturgeon, with her fondness for L K Bennett nude courts – but the male party leaders instead.
Consider the attention paid to Ed Miliband’s choice of footwear for the live television debate at the beginning of the month. According to the Daily Mirror, on the day of the debate the Labour leader sent an aide to buy two new pairs of sensible black shoes from Clarks in Manchester, “for stomping the campaign trail” and “to kick rivals into touch”. (Cue “Don’t put your foot in it” puns from the Manchester Evening News, among others.) As for the subliminal message of the shoes: according to the shop assistant who sold them, “They are a popular comfortable, working shoe”; which I’m guessing is supposed to play well with the “hard-working families” that political leaders have been citing so often in this campaign.
Elsewhere, the day before the debate, the Guardian had asked, “Has David Cameron ruined the Chelsea boot look?” One of the newspaper’s style-conscious journalists had noted that the Prime Minister wore a black leather pair – similar to those popularised by the Beatles in the early Sixties – to the unveiling ceremony of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. At first, I wondered if the story was an April Fool’s joke but it turned out that both the Daily Mail and the Times had already reported the previous week on Cameron’s penchant for Chelsea boots – a design worn by fashionable metropolitan types (as opposed to Big Beasts such as Ken Clarke, whose battered suede Hush Puppies have become as much of a trademark as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was).
Nick Clegg, on the other hand, appears to be taking a slightly more casual approach, or at least he did on his visit to Go Ape in Devon on 8 April, when he donned rugged brown footwear to cross a treetop rope bridge, in a photo opportunity for which he teamed navy chinos with a safety harness. I confess, the semiotics of the outfit were not altogether clear (the shoes veered towards being trainers but were not quite; the chinos were somewhat crumpled; his pale-blue shirtsleeves were rolled up). But if pressed, I’d say the overall effect was meant to show that Clegg is a jolly good sport, who can occasionally break free from the more formal tailoring that has characterised his campaign appearances so far (dark suits of a design eerily similar to those worn by Cameron and Miliband).
Now, you could feel that these and other sartorial observations are yet more evidence of the woeful trivialisation of politics. Never mind that men are as liable as women to be subjected to sole-searching commentary, rather than being applauded for their soul-stirring oratory – it’s still an indication of the decline of proper political analysis. Which may very well be true; however, as Virginia Woolf observed, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have… more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
As it happens, Woolf was a supporter of the organisation that became the Fawcett Society. Yet her commitment to women’s rights did not negate her interest in women’s shoes (and men’s, on occasion), including the ones that she saw while visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. “The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them,” observed Woolf, who found herself curiously touched by the sight of Charlotte Brontë’s shoes, preserved in a glass case along with a thin muslin dress; relics that had “outlived her”.
Shoes are also scattered through Woolf’s novels – often kicked off by a female protagonist for being too tight. And while the significance of Woolf’s fictional shoes may not be as explicit as the footwear in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (the son of a cobbler, who conjured up demonic slippers in The Red Shoes), they are seldom irrelevant to the inner lives of her characters.
Not that I am demanding that the election campaign should consist henceforth of “Shoes not views”. Nor am I calling for our political leaders to follow Gandhi’s barefooted example (though Nick Clegg has previously confessed to padding about his office with no shoes on during spells of hot weather). Yet they might find some comfort in Gandhi’s declaration: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Compare and contrast with Nigel Farage, who took to Twitter to exclaim: “There are two things in life I can’t bear. David Cameron and unpolished shoes.”
We have been warned…
Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar