Dressing to express

In the late 1990s I was invited onto Newsnight in my capacity as editor of The Erotic Review. The topic under discussion was “Pornography and Censorship” and my role was to be the liberal, non-Mary Whitehouse figure. I had never appeared on a serious news programme before and so I dashed out to Jigsaw to buy something sensible to wear. Because, even though I don’t have a wardrobe so much as a whole costume department, I never buy anything that’s remotely close to normal “workwear”. Colleagues from that period of my life can testify that my office look back then was a sartorial hybrid of brothel keeper and pirate queen. I kept a feather boa in the office, alongside Agent Provocateur corsets. But I couldn’t help noting that Kirsty Wark didn’t wear 1930s nightgowns or stripy Vivienne Westwood breeches on air.

I returned from Jigsaw with a pair of plain black, wide-leg slacks and a blue V-neck jumper, an outfit I have never worn before or since. So it’s fair to say I went on air trying to impersonate a serious journalist, rather than simply being Rowan Pelling – whose adjectives, like her clothes, run the gamut from flippant to mordant to borderline philosophical. “What on earth were you wearing?” said my boss afterwards. “You should have spent the cash on a blow-dry!” said my flatmate, who was dead right. Any woman who has ever been on the goggle-box, given a talk, appeared on some sort of panel discussion, or been a public figure, will tell you the first thing people talk about is the state of her mane.

Hillary Clinton even gave a talk to Yale students that focussed on this mildly distressing truth and has said she thought of calling her memoir “The Scrunchie Chronicles”, rather than Hard Choices, because her hair was more discussed than her policies. When Professor Mary Beard had the temerity to share her vast knowledge of classical civilisation on the BBC, the late AA Gill declared “the hair is a disaster” and suggested she wasn’t attractive enough to be on TV in the first place.

So you could say Angela Rayner got off lightly when described on Twitter as having “weird Barbie hair” (that’s better than a disaster, right?) after the Mail on Sunday accused her of distracting Boris Johnson during PMQs by crossing and uncrossing her legs (“just look at the tight, short skirts she wears!”), like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Which is basically tabloid shorthand for, “You flashed your vulva at the PM.” What most women will take away from all this is that a female can be at the top of her game, eloquent as fuck, trouncing the elected leader of the nation, looking like a Hollywood goddess while doing so, and she will still be wrong wrong WRONG. You’re either too plug-ugly for TV or you’re manipulating your looks to wrongfoot hapless males and compensate for the sin of not having learned your debating skills at the Oxford Union.

The good news is lockdown may have moved the world on a fair bit when it comes to what passes for acceptable working apparel – even for women

People talk about “dressing to impress”, but that’s almost impossible if you’re a woman. If you couldn’t please your mum, friends or headmistress with your early adventures in fashion, why would you expect things to change in the wide world of men? So ever since the Newsnight debacle, I’ve decided to damn well “dress to please myself”, as that means at least one person’s thrilled with my outfit. What I’ve discovered in the process is that it is, in fact, entirely possible to give a speech to a room full of billionaires and financiers (as I once did in a posh hotel in Switzerland) while dressed in a corset dress and cowboy boots. I once went on stage at a literary festival in Hampshire wearing shorts, a camisole top and a vintage dressing gown.

Five years ago I went on Newsnight in a 1950s strapless sundress and reclined on a chaise longue to read an explicit extract from John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, which finally laid the ghost of those black slacks to rest. I only draw the line at sporting my antler headdress on telly, which is a bit too Eyes Wide Shut for topical news programmes.

The good news is lockdown may have moved the world on a fair bit when it comes to what passes for acceptable working apparel – even for women. The whole concept of a suit became bizarre in a world where meetings were conducted via Zoom, while wearing unseen joggers and Uggs. I know legions of women who vow they’ll never return to high heels or underwired bras (though rest assured, you’ll only extract me from my cantilevered bras with a hoist and pliers). Meanwhile, the non-stop advance of the gender-fluid means all the old dress codes have flown out the window.

If the trans MP Jamie Wallis survives being charged with absconding from a car crash, we should expect to see him/her in a dress in Westminster. And it will be fascinating to see if her/his skirt lengths come under similar scrutiny to Rayner’s.

Mind you, some prejudices take longer to eradicate than others. It may take centuries for women not to have to spend a fortune at the hairdresser’s before every public appearance. I’ve only been on Question Time once and it was utterly terrifying, but I’d done a lot of homework (including a two-hour session with my husband discussing the armed forces review) and didn’t disgrace myself. The next day I was at Manchester airport and two women came up to me. One said, “Were you on Question Time last night?” I nodded my head and waited for the feedback. The second said, “We really liked your hair. Where did you get it done?” I had ticked the most important box for viewer satisfaction.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review


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