Unbutton that jacket, and let freedom reign

The Independent, Tuesday 24 July 2012

Clothes matter, especially when the temperature soars. This is the moment when halter-necks and strapless bras come into their own, inviting cooling breezes to caress newly-bare flesh – though not if you’re a man, of course. I was at a party in the City of London last week and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for all the men in suits. I don’t often feel sorry for men, obviously, but these were CEOs, politicians, lobbyists – men of some importance in their respective worlds – and they all looked the same.

This is one of the few areas of life where women have an advantage. “What are you going to wear?” are among the words I most enjoy hearing, signalling the start of intense conversations with my women friends. We compare the merits of different designers, agonise over heel height and offer supportive comments as we fix our lipstick in the ladies’ loo.

I don’t know for certain that men don’t do any of this, but I find it hard to imagine them  nthusiastically discussing each other’s choice of socks. Despite the massive social changes we’ve gone through in the past half century, it’s a curious fact that men’s clothes have evolved very little. David Cameron tries to do casual from time to time but in Afghanistan last week he sweltered in a totally unsuitable black shirt. I recently saw Ed Miliband standing next to Ed Balls on a warm evening, and they both had their suit jackets buttoned up.

A couple of male friends have told me recently that they envy my freedom to wear what I like. The downside – there’s always a downside where women are concerned – is the risk of not being taken seriously. The conservative nature of men’s clothes says something about gravitas and power, and the smart woman’s dilemma has always been whether to challenge that assumption or conform.

I rather admire David Steel’s wife Judy for deciding to get a tattoo for her 70th birthday, especially as she must have guessed it would prompt a discussion about whether a woman is ever too old for body art. Personally, I’ve never liked tattoos but I’m amused by their shifting relationship to class. Who now remembers that they used to be an aristocratic fashion, embraced by both the Duke of York (later George V), who had a dragon tattooed on his arm, and Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie?

If the meaning of body art can change so drastically, it’s odd that clothes are still so codified by gender. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’d love to walk into a party and look at the men’s clothes as well as the women’s. Am I right to think that most men don’t know what they’re missing? I can’t tell you how much fun it is to go out in a corset dress and heels.


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