The jury may still be out on Liz Truss’s conference speech, but the verdict on her frock is more conclusive.
The dress, designed by High Street brand Karen Millen, was a version of one worn on the same day by the Princess of Wales.
While the PM opted for the red design, Kate chose yellow, the Daily Mail pointed out. And the “ever elegant” Princess of Wales wore the pleated skirt style, flattering “her trim figure”, in contrast to the pencil-skirted dress donned by Truss, that gave “less freedom of movement”.
The Guardian went into greater depth, finding disturbing political references that had possibly escaped Truss as she prepared to address the party faithful for the first time as Prime Minister.
Under the heading “Why did Liz Truss wear the same outfit as a fictional fascist?”, the paper noted that the dress worn by Truss was “surprisingly similar” to one worn by Emma Thompson for her portrayal of a “tyrannical female dictator” in the television series Years and Years.
The Guardian writer managed to squeeze in mentions of Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins and concentration camps before eventually conceding that the dress decision was surely, “purely coincidence”.
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This focus on the PM’s attire is even more gratuitous than the obsession with Theresa May’s footwear when she was in No 10 and, indeed, when she was Home Secretary and party chairman before then.
With May’s shoes – typically, leopard print kitten heels – she sometimes seemed to be in on the fun, purposefully jollying up conservative clobber with touches of flamboyance.
But how tedious it must be for female politicians to be constantly treated as fashion plates. As premier, May was often depicted by photographs of her shoes alone, funny perhaps the first time but increasingly demeaning.
Kenneth Clark’s suede shoes made the front pages but, generally, male parliamentarians face little scrutiny over their sartorial habits, and tend only to be pulled up – as Boris Johnson was and, earlier, Michael Foot – for inappropriate scruffiness.
The mocking of May’s heels – and the analysis of the Truss dress – is quite blatantly sexist. And though easy to dismiss as irrelevant, which women in their position learn to do, such attitudes to our female leaders are disturbingly unreconstructed.
May had a torrid time as PM, thanks to the Brexit negotiations that she, a Remainer, had inherited. She seemed to be up against her own party’s chauvinism as well as bullies in Brussels – remember the cringe-worthy pictures at an EU summit where other leaders literally turned their backs on her?
At home, her colleague Amber Rudd spoke of the “whiff of sexism” about how May was treated by the Tory Party, when she was ousted from Downing Street in 2019.
It “did feel like we had a second female prime minister being pushed out by a group of men at the time”, Rudd said in a BBC interview, referring to the “very largely male groups” in the ERG (the Brexiteer European Research Group), and harking back to Margaret Thatcher’s removal by her men in grey suits in 1990.
My heart went out to May in those dying days of her premiership, as she tried valiantly to get Brexit over the line. Any doubts I’d had about her political abilities were quashed in sisterly solidarity as I willed her, in vain, to get her deal.
Now, Truss, who I wouldn’t have backed as Tory leader and who certainly hasn’t got off to a good start, is beginning to win my sympathy in the face of a sexist onslaught.
Often denounced as “thick” on social media, despite her Oxford education and government career to date, she must suffer the cheap shots reserved for women in politics.
One (male) columnist said he watched her “squawk” through her conference speech, which made him long to have Boris back. Another commentator, female this time, described Truss as the “beyond embarrassment middle manager who has been mistakenly promoted to the top job”.
As Truss battled Rishi Sunak for the leadership, Google search results revealed more interest in her personal life than in her competitor’s, along with barbs about her lack of intelligence.
“Truss is arguably one of those politicians who merits criticism edged with ridicule,” wrote Alona Ferber in the New Statesman, asking if the same treatment would be meted out to a man.
Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings reportedly said she was “as close to properly crackers as anyone that I have met in parliament” – echoing his putdown of Carrie Johnson as mad, an epithet he favours for any slightly challenging woman in his orbit.
Truss said during her speech on Wednesday that she had fought hard to get where she was today, as a woman. She told the story about when she was on a plane with her brothers, and the boys were given badges saying “junior pilot”, while her badge said “junior air hostess”.
If that slight spurred her on to be a high achiever, how does it feel now, having reached the very top, to be traduced on the grounds of her sex and taken less seriously than the men she vanquished on the way?
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