Why what we wear matters

It had been a long day at school and my evening was set to consist of plenty more work emails. One of the ways I tend to relax is by watching the news. On this particular occasion, Theresa May, our Prime Minister and a woman in the highest political office in the country, was being interviewed about issues relating to Brexit. Despite this weighty political input, I found myself looking at the jewellery she had chosen to wear for the interview. I was still listening but also, without even really thinking about it, registering the outfit she was wearing.

This is a woman with a lengthy political career, excellent qualifications and the power to make decisions which will affect all of us. Yet here I was, making a judgement about the statement necklace she was pairing with her tailored suit. Would I have been analysing a man’s outfit with the same kind of scrutiny? Could I have told you even what tie the journalist interviewing Mrs May was wearing? The answer is no – and it has a great deal to say about what significance we attribute to women’s appearance.

Like it or not, we are all judged on our appearance, particularly women in the public eye. On any given day, without reference to my diary my assistant could make an accurate guess about what I had planned that day based on what I was wearing. Every morning I give thought to who I will be seeing, what image I wish to present. The parents I meet at open morning might not recognise me if they bumped into me at the supermarket. You don’t turn up to a job interview in ripped jeans and there are occasions when all of us ‘dress to impress’. This applies to men as well – but the unwritten code is far simpler. The rules are murkier for women. We have more options. Each option ‘says’ something different. Of course, that is apart from when a far stricter dress code is imposed upon us. Last year a woman was sent home from a London accountancy firm for failing to adhere to a dress code which required her to wear shoes with at least a two-inch heel – which led to an inquiry. Stories of discriminatory dress codes where women were required to don everything from short skirts to low-cut tops or paint their nails a certain shade flooded in. Clearly this indicates sexism on a wide scale – and a battle for all the girls at my school and elsewhere to fight to be taken seriously as an intelligent individual beyond nail varnish shades and footwear regulations.

Arguably, Theresa May welcomes this kind of scrutiny. Next month she will appear on the front cover of the US edition of Vogue magazine and she is known for her love of fashion and vibrant shoe collection. She even chose a lifetime’s subscription to Vogue as her luxury item when she appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. But what of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose decision to wear the same outfit more than once has been pilloried in the press? Or Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon? When she was named as the second most powerful woman in Britain last summer, Google searches soared. People, however, wanted to know how tall she was and whether she wore a wig rather than about her policies.

At Headington, as our girls mature and particularly once they reach the Sixth Form, we encourage them to express their individuality and discover who they are and that often means experimenting with their appearance. At the same time, we have to teach them that what they wear, how they choose to dress, will affect how people respond to them. First impressions count and as a woman, with a myriad of options to choose from, sadly that means a myriad of things upon which to be judged. How do we rise above this? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? The secret – and it’s not a simple one – I believe is to make what we say and do so much more interesting and relevant than the superficial matter of dress. We also need to do our best not to judge other women based on their appearance over and above what they are saying and doing. I shall remember that next time Mrs May is wearing a particularly eye-catching piece.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School

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