I used to work as a receptionist in the City. It was a tedious job which saw me required to wear a tight, impractical uniform and a mandatory pair of heels. My male colleagues, naturally, were allowed to wear flats. For those who know me, putting me in high heels is akin to strapping roller-skates on Bambi. I didn’t think much of it at the time except for how uncomfortable and unrealistic the uniform requirements were for the task at hand (there were many times when I was required to duck under a table during a business meeting to fiddle with haywire electrics). Fast forward five years and it irks me that shoes and a short skirt are still encouraged in the workplace.
“I used to have to wear heels on the shop floor, too,” one friend recalled of her time as manager of a high-end retail store. “I was on my feet all day.” In comparison, her male colleagues all wore flats.
It’s a strange double standard to which we pay little attention. I’m assuming that if a male colleague wanted to throw on a pair of stilettos in the workplace this would be met with opposition.
But why all the fuss about footwear? Why should it matter what we wear to work as long as we are able to do our jobs to the best of our ability? Who cares if a man wants to wear fabulous heels or a woman feels more comfortable in brogues? It doesn’t alter our ability to carry out the task at hand.
Which brings me to the recent Tory Party conference, the first since the Brexit vote and Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister.
Not surprisingly, May has amassed some serious column inches in the tabloids of late. You might be forgiven for assuming that the press would focus on the instability at the heart of the Tory Party, the wake of such a monumental decision as Brexit, the divisive spirit of the country, or even her tough policies. But this is Britain. A country famed for its tabloids such as the Daily Star, Daily Mail and The Sun which, as my Dad likes to say, are more like comics than the newspapers of old. So the red-tops have been devoting some considerable column inches to May’s wardrobe, not least her shoes.
Then there was this summer’s footage from Good Morning Britain which saw the buffoonish Piers Morgan and long-suffering Susanna Reid clash over coverage of Theresa May’s shoes as they discussed a front page from The Sun. With the headline ‘Heel, boys’, the august publication compared the Prime Minister’s flamboyant fashion sense with her grey suited counterparts using a photo of May’s multi-coloured leopard-print kitten heels.
“Does this frustrate you – the constant focus on Theresa May’s shoes?” Reid asked former Tory minister Esther McVey on the show.
But before McVey could answer, Morgan interrupted: “She’s worn those heels specifically so we talk about them. It’s part of her thing!”
McVey suggested that it’s “nice” to see a little bit of personality from our PM. “She has got a sense of humour and something else to say…it’s a subtle way of giving away a little bit of her personality.”
Sam Olsen, former campaign manager and friend of May, added that the shoes are “a part of her personality – a glimpse of something that is different to the cool calm exterior, which people like”.
Later, ITV reporter Sally Biddulph commented that analysis of what women wear when they are in the public eye is wrong, but it comes hand in hand with the job.
“As a woman, she will always be scrutinised for what she wears,” Biddulph said. “Is it right? No. Is it the status quo? Yes. I get tweets all the time about what I’m wearing on screen and whether viewers like it, good and bad.”
What surprised me the most about this approach to discussing the new PM was – rather depressingly – not the air of sexism around her treatment (come on, we’d hardly focus on Boris Johnson’s choice in footwear) but the reactions of my female friends to the debate. We just couldn’t decide.
“Who is calling it sexist? Feminists or media? Is it damaging to feminism to call it sexist?”, one friend mused. “Are feminists perceived as whinging or is it a valid point? If a man had a nifty line of snazzy ties, would it be ok to ask about them? Would anyone care? Does it take away from the PM’s credibility to focus on her shoes?”
I replied: “The thing is male MPs don’t get asked about appearance. I don’t know how I feel though. I am more concerned about policy. And are we simply trying to pick fault or is testament to latent sexism in the media?”
Another friend said: “They should only be commenting on their job role but that’s not life is it? Look at my old job. It didn’t matter how good you were at your job you still had to wear heels, be a size six and look like Beyoncé. But as a representative of our country isn’t it right she look smart? Jeremy Corbyn is slated for being scruffy and not wearing a tie. So we want her to be smart but we just aren’t meant to comment?”
“This is not true,” interjected another friend. “Men can’t wear any shoes. It’s just there are more female options.”
With this in mind, you could even go as far to say that women can go against the grain in what is perceived as ‘acceptable’ dress whereas men can’t. Corbyn is labelled “scruffy” because he doesn’t wear a tie but May is “fabulous” and “fun” for wearing leopard-print shoes.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen such opinions. Across the pond, Hillary Clinton’s choice to wear a red dress during a recent debate was described as “telling” whereas not a single word was uttered about Donald Trump’s blue suit (nor his ridiculous hair and oompa loompa glow).
Personally, I couldn’t care less if our Prime Minister wears flats, heels or giant furry slippers to work; it’s her ability to lead the country in the wake of a Brexit vote and the torrent of uncertainty and instability which I am concerned about. So does it irritate me that May’s fashion sense and baking ability seem to be the topic du jour? As a woman, yes. As a voter, yes!
I would much prefer to see some responsible journalism from popular television shows such as Good Morning Britain discussing the very real unrest in our leading political parties or debating a country whose national opinion is more discordant than ever. If we stop trying to impose archaic feminine qualities on May, we can start asking her the really important questions.
That should be the great debate, not, as we saw thanks to Piers Morgan, whether she uses margarine or butter in her scones. Although, for the record, I am firmly in the butter camp.