Why are we still so fixated on what powerful women are wearing?

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  • Niamh McCollum is so over this

    So, another female politician has been criticised for what she’s wearing.

    Yes, Labour MP Tracy Brabin was headline news this week after wearing an off-the-shoulder dress in the House of Commons. For committing the shoulder flashing offence, Brabin subsequently received an array of insults on social media, including tweets that branded her a ‘slapper’ and a ‘slut’.

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    Brabin addressing parliament in the off-the-shoulder dress

    It’s a tale as old as time itself: woman has job, woman turns up and does job to adequate degree of professionalism, woman’s efforts are totally eclipsed by what she’s wearing. It stretches back to the first days of women in parliament, where female MPs were vilified as sexless planks of wood if they dressed too formally, or condescended for wearing feminine threads. Such a trap left Labour MP Susan Lawrence with no other option but to forgo fashion altogether, ordering half-a-dozen inexpensive dresses to her office in 1923 in an effort to strike some kind of happy medium between the two – before she could be taken seriously.

    Also in the firing line has been former Prime Minister Theresa May, whose penchant for kitten heels (most notably in the leopard variety) was the main focus of news reports upon her appointment as Britain’s post-Brexit referendum leader. The bizarre fixation on May’s shoes lead to a demand by GMB Union leader Penny Robinson that she swap in her designer heels for pumps, if she was truly serious about advancing ‘the cause of women in the workplace.’

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    May’s kitten heels regularly featured as the main focus of media reports in the early stages of Brexit negotiations (Getty Images)

    This is not, of course, isolated to women in politics. Take Serena Williams, for example, whose black catsuit was notoriously banned by French Open officials in 2018. Williams made waves at the tournament after wearing the suit which had been specifically designed help prevent blood clots – they posed a serious threat to her health after her daughter’s birth in 2017. Some might view such a creation as an innovative way for Serena to fulfil her role as a professional tennis player by playing the game to the best of her ability, without having to worry about health implications. The French Tennis Federation, however, did not. Offering no further comment beyond, ‘one must respect the game and the place’, its President Bernard Guidicelli cast his judgment and the catsuit was out.

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    Williams’ sporting her catsuit at the 2018 French Open, before it was banned by officials (Getty Images)

    In Brabin’s case, she had been to a music event earlier that day and was not expecting to be called to parliament. A mass walkout had been staged by political journalists at Downing Street, after senior reporters claimed they weren’t allowed into a press briefing on the next stage of Brexit talks. Considering that recent talks have included the banning of legislation to protect the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families after EU withdrawal, it’s understandable that restricting what information the media can dispel to the public at this time might prove controversial. Brabin, our shadow culture secretary, turned up to demand answers as to why our rules of transparency and democracy could be threatened in such a way. In the enormity of such an issue, is it fair to say that she might not have thought it a priority to dig out a pussy-bow blouse while rushing to address her colleagues?

    Whether it’s Brabin who didn’t consider it a priority to change, or Serena whose practical outfit helped her perform comfortably, or Theresa May who just really digs kitten heels – these women are simply turning up to do their jobs, why are we demanding that they jump through hoops just to do so?

    Nowadays, it’s difficult to come across a shocking piece of news and actually feel shocked by it. We’re dealing with a historical split from the EU, an unprecedented wildfire crisis in Australia and a President who actually referred to the United-States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement as, ‘like the song ‘YMCA’, right?’ – so it’s also important to ask ourselves how Brabin’s right shoulder actually managed to make national news. We need to stop giving women’s appearance the same weight of public attention that we give to the bigger issues of our time.

    These are women with the ability to inspire and create positive change within society, it’s time to shut up and let them get on with it.

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