Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Dress for Success: the Ultimate Guide

There’s been much debate recently concerning Germaine Greer’s comments that Australian PM Julia Gillard has a ‘big arse’ and bad jackets. Many feminists have been outraged that she broke the ‘sisterhood’ by criticising another woman for her appearance. I for one was unimpressed with Greer’s comments, and her weedy defence on Radio 4 this weekend.

But at a training day hosted by Women in Advertising and Communications London (WACL) last week, I was reminded that all too often women are the harshest critics of their own sex. Grace Woodward (a very famous MTV presenter and fashionista) gave a talk on how to ‘Dress for Success’. In fact, her key messages didn’t revolve around sharp suits and regular manicures; they were centred on authenticity; being yourself, finding your own style, not compromising your standards. This was a key theme throughout the day from all the top execs: you won’t get anywhere if you’re not yourself. In the Q&A Woodward was asked whether men or women were more critical of women and she said ‘definitely women’.

When I worked for Emily Thornberry MP I was disappointed with an article by Janet Street Porter that appeared in the Independent in the run up to the 2010 election. She’d written a short bio of the candidates standing in Islington (all female) and under each she’d put a line on their clothing titled ‘Battle Dress’. Next to Germaine Greer’s comments this is tame stuff, but I felt that JSP undermined her key point, which was to highlight three women ‘slugging their guts out for a political system that’s run by men’. If JSP had been writing about male politicians ‘Battle Dress’ would not have featured in the article, yet like the rest of the media she expects our female politicians to be style gurus as well as national leaders.

If you reach the echelons of your chosen career it’s likely that at some point your picture will appear in a newspaper. If you work in finance, politics or for a high profile firm your picture will appear online, in print and on TV a LOT. One of the reasons for this is that women look interesting. Picture editors, who spend most of their day deciding which white man in a grey suit should get featured on page 4, are thrilled when they can use a photograph of a woman because she breaks up the monotony of men in suits.

One of the other key messages at the WACL training day was that you can’t please everyone; a painful lesson for many women. The best way to dress for success is to be yourself and believe in yourself. If you make it to the top there will always be men and women who want to bring you down and in today’s society targeting someone’s appearance is an obvious way of doing it. But ultimately, your success is down to you and not your outfit.

This post first appeared on Levo League.

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