I pissed off a Spanish phone perv once. Language lab tapes at school don’t prepare you for just how difficult it is when you can’t see someone’s facial expression and they sound like they’ve been running for a bus. So when I obliviously and apologetically requested that he repeat the question, but slower, and he obliged, and I still couldn’t catch it, there was a long delay, followed by a massive sigh (several, to be honest). Then, clearly despairing of ex-pats, and with a heavy Spanish accent, the pained voice said in English, “What-Are-You-Wearing?”
I was genuinely shocked - I had no idea they still asked that. But it’s not just bored men with hands-free phones ‘garnishing their chorizos’ (I’m rubbish at euphemisms. And recipes.) - the press are just as morbidly obsessed with that question if you’re a political party leader’s wife.
A recent Daily Telegraph front page had a picture of Miriam Gonzalez Durantez after a photocall with her husband Nick Clegg. The caption read, ‘She ditched the sensible Gap Jeans she had worn inside [a school] for a more eye-catching pair of Cos trousers but stuck with the silver shoes from Dune.’
Clearly the Lib Dem conf had just been an infomercial for where a partner in a law company, and mother of three with no official role in the party, who earns her own money, buys her clothes. Did we need the full list of high street retailers or was that released to show us how frugally her husband would run the economy? If this is the rationale, it bodes badly for Samantha Cameron this week. Knowing how hard husband David tries to prove he’s a real boy, there’s a shellsuit with her name on it (literally) on its way to the Tory Party Conference as we speak.
Regardless of what ‘the wives’ do, they can’t escape comment on their look. Michelle ‘Good Arms’ Obama does excellent work campaigning for the prevention of child obesity in the US. When I read Miriam Gonz. Dur ‘had eye-catching Cos trousers’, ‘I’d only heard of Cos lettuces, so I assumed she was supporting the First Lady’s cause by dressing as a healthy alternative to Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Disappointingly they weren’t made of salad at all, they just had a black and white pattern – quite unremarkable really, but no woman in the public eye can wear anything without a judgemental adjective being applied to it so they had to be labelled ‘eye-catching’ and her jeans ‘sensible’. It’s as if Maggie Smith’s dowager character in Downton Abbey had been drafted in specially for passive-aggressive duties.
And there are not enough fluffy white dressing gowns and freebie shampoos in the world to compensate for the hell of going to conference when your husband is the party leader. As everyone overly applauds and guffaws at his and his mates’ speeches with their jokes written for them, all eyes are on you. You sit there mute, smiling and looking demure while people scrutinise what you’re wearing. Then you have to kiss him as if he has just steered a large passenger ship away from an iceberg, so everyone can see how much you ‘love and respect each other’. I may have inadvertently just described some people’s weddings here.
News stories about the pair of you will be widely dispatched, the essence of which will largely be ‘He’s tapping that.’ Every image of you will be dissected, more often than not, by groups of women in TV studios (frequently composed of the self-styled ‘pretty’, ‘practical’ and ‘bonkers’ one). ‘She’s cut her hair into a bob, is that fashionable?’ ‘Very practical for the school-run.’ ‘Is it something to do with Bob The Builder?’ And of course the eternal question about whether you’re supportive enough of your husband’s political career. If it was me, I’d be tempted to confuse them even more by never leaving his side yet wearing one of those T-shirts that says ‘I’m with stupid’.
In the same way if you mention any problem in the First World, someone will remind you there are children starving in Africa, I’m aware my references to Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonz Dur will prompt someone to furiously point out there are UKIP wives trapped behind a fridge. But ask yourself when you have ever seen an article about what Joachim Sauer wears when he supports his wife German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yesterday’s Guardian demonstrated you don’t have to be a ‘wife’ in politics to be seen as merely the sum of your clothes, you can even be the Home Secretary. Along with the front page photo of Theresa May’s shoes and trousers, deputy fashion editor Imogen Fox’s article states, ‘As she expounded her tough stance on immigration she stood in shoes worthy of the front row at Paris Fashion week.’ And the obligatory price tag info followed.
Fox’s remit is fashion and she positively cheers May’s admirable and bold fashion sense. But why would The Guardian give so much attention to a woman’s trousers and not her words on a subject that is one of the hottest potatoes in British politics at the moment? Can’t women be judged on the contents of their character and not the colour of their cardigan? (with apologies for hijacking and butchering Martin Luther King’s words a bit there)
Needless to say, The Guardian’s coverage of May’s outfit was nothing in comparison to The Daily Mail’s but that’s what the Mail does: make unkind comments about women in the women’s section written by women. There’s no need for the Guardian to start leering at women just because another paper is Charles Manson.