Naz Shah, 42, the Labour MP for Bradford West models this season’s key workwear
Whenever I think about winning my seat in the general election last May, I picture the royal blue shalwar kameez [a traditional South Asian outfit] with silver detailing I wore that night to the Richard Dunne Sports Centre, where the voting was being counted.
The fabric had been given to me by a friend as a present after the birth of my now four-year-old son Raese and I’d saved it for a special occasion so it felt quite apt. It was tailored for me, smart, sophisticated and comfortable – as it was important for me to be relaxed. I could have chosen to wear a suit – they normally make me feel powerful, especially during the election campaign when I’d often been surrounded by men in grey suits – but given that I’d just won my parliamentary seat, I didn’t feel the need to blend in.
That night was a celebration, and wearing that particular shalwar kameez represented so many of the life experiences – like motherhood and my cultural heritage – that had led me to this new role. I’d always been somewhat dismissive of fashion, not least because I grew up with very little – in fact, I’m probably one of very few MPs who have ever been homeless – but that night I really did appreciate what a powerful tool clothes can be when you want to celebrate who you are.
My earliest fashion memory is of going to an uncle’s wedding when I was less than five years old and wearing garara – like trousers with big flares at the bottom. Putting them on was very exciting; everyone wore something blingy. My family is originally from Pakistan, and weddings are always huge, dressy occasions. Soon after though, everything in my life changed.
I was six when my father left my mother alone to raise two children and with a third on the way. The day he left we packed all our belongings into bin liners and went to my grandparents’ house. For the next two years we moved many times and I never saw the end of bin liners. Each house seemed to be worse, living in one room in most places due to damp and heating costs. I still find it difficult to form attachments to things. I have coats I’ve owned for 20 years, but when you’ve had the kind of life that I have, you learn not to become too sentimental.
My teenage years were just as complicated. I was sent to live with family in Pakistan and I was given fabrics which were then tailored for me into shalwar kameezes – very different from my daughter Leyana who, at 11, is beginning to discover fashion and is loving clothes at New Look – it wasn’t like that for me.
I didn’t start trying to find my own style until well into my 20s when I started working for social services but even then I opted for ‘safe’ fashion, I was never one to try new fashion.
Like most women, when I had children (Shah also has a son, Aydan, 8) fashion took a back seat and I’d spend most of my time in jeans. In many ways, I’ve rediscovered the joy of dressing up since becoming an MP. I haven’t worn jeans in six months now. Instead, I’ve replaced them with smart black Next trousers, which I can’t live without.
And it’s amazing the difference a good tailored jacket can make. When I slip one on, I immediately feel like I’m Naz the MP, not Naz the mother of three. But it’s not just about reinforcing my identity; what I wear is also a way of showing reverence for my role and others too. For instance, I always carry a spare scarf in case I need to cover my head when visiting the Asian community. That’s not about conforming, it’s about showing respect for others, for my religion and for my position as a leader in the community.
In fact, I believe that if you work in a male dominated environment like me, celebrating the fact that you’re a woman – be that through clothes or make-up – should be encouraged. When a man wears a suit, he’s called smart. When women dress up, it’s shallow, yet why shouldn’t we all take pride in our appearances? What often gets lost is that what women wear – however carefully considered – is just one part of our identity. Once I appeared on television to talk about forced marriage and a man tweeted me, saying, ‘My wife wants to know where you bought your top from’. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Is that really all you’re thinking about – weren’t you listening to what I was saying?’
When I wore the same coral-coloured jacket from New Look on two separate occasions in the chamber – once when I swore in and once at Prime Minister’s Questions during which I asked a question – someone tweeted to ask ‘Hasn’t she been paid to buy new clothes’. My knee-jerk reaction was to be annoyed. A man could wear the same suit for a week, but no-one would comment if he changed his shirt and tie, yet women face a lot more scrutiny. But I do understand it: your clothes are the first thing that people see. I’ve now become meticulous about rotating my wardrobe every three weeks, making sure not to wear the same outfits within that time frame.
After all, being a member of Parliament gives you unparalleled power. It gives you a platform to affect change. So for me, fashion is a way of giving that power the respect it deserves. I’m very blessed at having multiple identities, be it a British feminist, being Asian of Pakistani heritage, a Muslim woman, a mother and now, an MP. The clothes I choose allow me to celebrate each of these identities and to ultimately set my own narrative; they can give me an air of authority, convey a sense of respect or even boost my confidence. And that, to me, is true power dressing.”
Scroll down to see Naz modelling the three key workwear looks that will see you through the new season
The shift dress
Dress, £95, and shirt, £140, both Whistles (whistles.co.uk)
Get the look with the items below
My 2016 pledge to women
“To raise public awareness of domestic violence against women, and the plight of women in the penal system. In 2007 The Corston Report found that within our current system, women are treated particularly unfairly. I feel the recommendations made in the report still need to be addressed – something I plan to tackle in 2016.”
Photography: Phill Taylor
Fashion: Chloe Beeney
With thanks to: JJ Locations