Only once have I seen an MP up close, and I was so busy trying to make sense out of his all-English-words-and-yet-a-foreign-language that, forgive me, I didn’t take in what he was wearing. But, even without noticing the details, most of us realise that politicians have a unique talent: give them an outfit or a sentence, and they put it together in the most convoluted, illogical and unattractive way possible. The men look like their suits have been bought off a peg marked “Jacket too big, trousers too baggy, shirt never ample enough to cover belly; colour: dull, will attract stains”. The women seem to shop some place where the lights are kept low and where a compulsory scarf is draped over one of their shoulders as they leave.
This sartorial failure is more than a frivolous matter. Take the spat between the chic Dominique Voynet, the French environment minister, and our very own John Prescott. You thought it was solely about his “macho” comments. But it was not just Mme Voynet’s feminist principles that were offended by the Deputy Prime Minister; her aesthetic sensitivity was outraged, too. How could a representative of the government look so much like a has-been businessman: pot-belly gaping through his tight shirt, tie askew, hair unkempt? Ooh la la, Voynet couldn’t believe that she would have to engage in serious dealings with a man whose wardrobe showed his disrespect for others – and for everything she believed in: style, elegance and self-discipline.
The reason British politicians dress so apallingly is that they just don’t have the time to dress well (excuse me, don’t they get 12 weeks off?), they don’t earn that much money really, and they are scared of looking too flash in case they are mistaken for a Tory MP (unless, that is, they are one).
The designer and fashion consultant Monica Zipper, who is brought in to “resurrect” the various House of Commons brands – almost always confidentially – is a little more understanding. “A lot of people have to hide behind their clothes, and I think that’s what politicians have to do. They want to be heard, and don’t want their clothes to detract from that.”
Indeed, there was much excitement the other week because the shadow education secretary, Theresa May, wore a pair of shoes so pointed that Matthew Parris devoted his entire parliamentary sketch in the Times to them. “Should Mrs May stroll through an orchard in autumn,” he wrote,”she would unwittingly kebab a whole fruit salad of peaches, pears and plums.” They sounded delicious.
“It’s not their fashion sense I disagree with,” says Zipper, “but their unkemptness. When they do get someone in to make them over, they get in all the wrong people.” Ah yes, makeovers. A short while ago, some MPs were famously “Folletted” – made over by Barbara Follett MP. She told Robin Cook that he was autumn, after which he started wearing reds and browns – a colour combination not best worn by a man who already resembles a squirrel. “The problem with that,” says Anne McElvoy, associate editor of the Independent, “is that she bequeathed tastelessness. She is stuck in the era of the padded-shoulder suit.”
After television cameras were allowed into the House, there was a relative smartening-up, but all this did was bring MPs up to the sartorial standard of a geography teacher. Some of the women were obviously told that a bit of colour, next to the face, is a good idea in front of the camera. Hence the chiffon scarf tucked into an otherwise face-drainingly dull jacket. The ironic thing is that it really isn’t very difficult to look well dressed – as Nicole Thomson, the fashion editor of She magazine, points out: “The men could start by investing in a couple of made-to-measure suits. They don’t need to be radical, just maybe have a lining in a different colour. Something to give them a bit more personality.” They don’t even need to go bespoke to do this: the Autograph range for men, recently launched by Marks and Spencer, has designs by Gordon Brown’s own Timothy Everest. Prices start at a couple of hundred pounds for a suit, and the linings are well funky. The snag is that there isn’t a branch of M&S near the House of Commons – a missed opportunity if ever there was one.
However, our politicians could simply start with “back to basics”: the men could get a clothes brush and use it, tighten their tie-knots every time they go to the Gents, and polish their shoes. The women could realise that hosiery comes in many colours and deniers, and could get their hair cut by someone who doesn’t hold a grudge.
But how much we miss. It seems that the best bits of a politician’s wardrobe are simply not seen by television and photo-graphers – the mediums through which most of us view them. Unless you are a Commons habitue, for instance, you probably don’t know that Betty Boothroyd, during her time as Speaker of the House, would sometimes wear “very extravagant buckles that were the subject of fetishistic fantasies among some of the men”; or that she would take off her shoes on hot days to reveal “lovely ankles and feet with lurid pink toenails”. Julie Kirkbride (Conservative, Bromsgrove) has been noted for her “very short, tight leather skirts and close-fitting jerseys”, and Helen Brinton (Labour, Peterborough) for her “short skirts and low cleavages”. And Peter Mandelson is “extremely well dressed” and wears “very stylish socks” and beautiful shoes that are “ostentatiously, brilliantly polished”. But then . . .