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Vivienne Westwood british fashion politics
Vivienne Westwood, political activist and one of Britain’s most acclaimed fashion designers, proves that style and substance aren’t mutually exclusiveTaken from the July 2008 issue of Dazed

Why don’t British politicians care about fashion?

Despite being one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports, the only fashion coverage in this election has been female leaders getting their outfits mocked

So Nick Clegg’s been hailed as a normcore icon and David Cameron is apparently so concerned with his personal style he deemed his hairdresser worthy of an MBE. But you’ve only got to turn on a leader’s debate, tune into the radio or open the newspaper to see that, as we approach the General Election, British politicians don’t really care about fashion. With issues like immigration, the NHS and the EU to bang their heads together on, they’ve got more important things to talk about. In the 572 pages that make up the five major political parties’ manifestos, the word ‘fashion’ is mentioned once. Worst of all, it’s by the Tories – condemned to a throwaway sentiment about the value of Britain’s creative industries (yes, the ones they’ve spent the last few years systematically cutting). 

Even empty conversational gestures towards the importance of “the arts” (secondary always to STEM subjects) never land upon the topic. It’s one of Britain’s pioneering industries, one that gives rise to a myriad of discussions on social issues like class, race, gender representation, ethical production, consumption and even LGBT rights. It gave us such gems as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. It also has an enormous economic impact to the country – according to the British Fashion Council, that number sits around £37bn a year. So why is fashion always seen as superficial, unworthy of political discussion? 

A lot of it has to do with gender. Although there has been some admittedly brilliant commentary on the outfit choices of the men running in this campaign – Farage’s tweed is “redolent of a mythologised past”, one “better than the present of economic slump, Isis and the erosion of grand old traditions,” while Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, attempting to appear distinct, are inadvertently proved interchangeable by their matching outfits – fashion is often used a sexist swinging ball used to level the progress made by female politicians. Discussion of male leaders’ sartorial status is always secondary (not so for their wives, with one major newspaper recently weighing up their value as ‘assets’, as if they fit into the same category as their husband's investment portfolios, private educations and weekend cottages in the Cotswolds) a humorous and self-aware addition to the real story. For women, it is the real story.

“Discussion of male leaders’ sartorial status is always secondary, a humorous and self-aware addition to the real story. For women, it is the real story”

Female politicians are subject to an endless stream of wardrobe criticism mired in sexism; for some outlets, their outfits are the focal point, not their opinions. It was Nicola Sturgeon’s dress rather than her opinion that sparked a Twitter war after the last debate, with users unable to decide if it was blue, green or grey. One article boasted of her “striking style transformation,” another marvelling at her metamorphosis from “a woman who had lost her waist along with her sanity” to “living proof women become sexier with age, income and office”. Sturgeon was even crudely photoshopped into a tartan bikini by The Sun, swinging on Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball (the implication being that the SNP have the power to destroy a recovering economy. Get it?). Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood was singled out for her choice of “hot pink” for the debate, as if she was a child choosing a colour for her new Barbie sports car, not a political leader about to discuss the future of her country. 

"We live in the era of the Merkelization of female political dress,” wrote Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times recently, “which has seen women like Ms. Merkel, the German chancellor, and Hillary Rodham Clinton adopt what is effectively the male uniform in softer, brighter colors to remove the topic from the conversation… Another way to explain the strategy is ‘bore them into talking about the issues.’” After all, whenever a woman like Sturgeon wears a pair of almost stylish shoes, the press comments on their ability to slim down her ankles. She can accessorise with a watch, as long as it’s “understated” – to “avoid too much frivolity.” The main issue here is that, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her Beyoncé sampled TED talk, we can’t take women who appear feminine seriously. Power is a male trait, one that comes with a suit and all the subliminal authority implied – women have to play by these rules. Any high heels or hints of hot pink are a dangerous threat to their hard-earned authority. 

Of course, this sexism is bullshit. But look at the way MP Stella Creasy (also the target of Twitter rape threats) was treated when speaking out against Page 3 wearing a patent blue pencil skirt, as if for a woman to have an opinion on the issue she needed to safely hide her own body in a burlap sack. “Look forward to your commentary on Cameron's shiny blue tie” she astutely responded to The Sun’s politics editor Tom Newton Dunn, who singled her outfit choice out on Twitter. When women in politics are so thoroughly mocked for their fashion choices, who can blame them if they chose to play it safe?

The political leaders have been desperately trying to humanise themselves with British culture. Ed Miliband recent extolled the virtues of Bastille and Ellie Goulding, while Nick Clegg is turning to remixing “Uptown Funk” to prop up his popularity. David Cameron is famously a fan of The Smiths, of course, much to Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s dismay. But why do they stay so resolutely clear of fashion, and why does fashion steer clear of them? It seems that engaging with it risks being seen as indulging in some frivolous, feminine topic, ignoring its fundamental importance to British culture, and its intimate connection not just to social issues but current affairs. For example – between 2011 and 2015 the BFC received £1.2m of funding from an EU grant. If Farage had his way, British fashion might become even more dangerously underfunded. 

But, when taken seriously, fashion has the potential to be powerful in politics. Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s recently elected Prime Minister, abandons ties, opting for an open collared shirt. A statement edged with anti-establishment symbolism, it signifies his position as a step in a new, progressive direction, away from the buttoned up bankers that got Greece’s economy in such a mess in the first place. Michelle Obama uses fashion as a way to champion American designers – something relatively unheard of in British political circles. Obama also navigates empowerment and, yes, femininity through dressing ­– she can wear a printed 50s housewife style dress while promoting women’s education, and she can show other women and girls that power and looking feminine are not mutually exclusive concepts. In the words of Friedman: “How do you erase a stereotype? You confront it, and force others to confront their own preconceptions about it, and then you own it. And in doing so you denude it of its power.”

Ultimately, we need to recognise and overcome the underlying sexism that sees fashion as a subject not worthy of real discussion, championing its validity as an art form (and something that Britain is really, really good at). Politicans shouldn’t be afraid of it, and they need to ditch the strange sense of pride over how unfashionable they are. “I’m not really interested in clothes,” said Cameron recently. “[I] get put in the changing room at Gap and clothes are passed to me under the changing room door.”