Opinion

“Carrie Symonds wore a pink dress – but why the hell do we care?”

Clearly we’re still in a place where women such as Carrie Symonds are reduced to what they’re wearing, but we need to focus on Johnson and his politics, says journalist Marisa Bate.

Close your eyes and think of Boris Johnson. What is he wearing? No, this isn’t the worst erotica you’ve ever read. This is the hard and sometimes repellent work in the fight for gender equality. Because if you have closed your eyes and pictured Boris, the first thing you’ve seen is the blonde mop, and then, perhaps, a blurry and nondescript suit in an inoffensive colour such as navy. 

Either way, no one really knows or cares what Boris Johnson wears. And quite rightly. When a man is heading directly for the iceberg with ruthless ambition and very little knowledge, righteously cloaked in a nauseating sense of nostalgic nationalism, there are far more important things to worry about. 

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But it’s not just Boris Johnson. In politics more generally, even now, men say things while women wear things, according to a lot of the media. Just this week an American reporter asked Elizabeth Warren, presidential candidate and former Harvard Law professor, if she had “picked out her outfit” for the Democrat debates next week. 

No matter their achievements, women are reduced to what they wear because we still live in a world that likes to remind women of their place. So, inevitably, when Boris Johnson made his first speech as Prime Minister yesterday, and Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s new partner, wore clothes, her outfit became A Thing.     

boris-johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with his new cabinet

As correctly predicted by a journalist on Twitter, the dress sold out in hours, and as she wrote, “there will be loads of articles about it”. And here we are! I hate to be that predictable, yet clearly we’re still in a place where women - who they are, what they stand for and what they represent - are reduced to a £120 shimmy of fabric from Ghost, and that’s why we’ve still got to point out why this might be a problem. 

While we don’t actually know that much about Symonds (she had an influential role working as an aide in the Tory party, and now has a job in PR), we can see that she is going to be in close proximity to the Prime Minister. Rather than find out more about her policies, though, certain members of the UK press (and public) have decided to make her, and what she wears, tabloid catnip. Recently, the Daily Mail described her black Chelsea boots as having a “First Lady funky twist”. I predict we will see many more of these articles over the coming weeks.

What I really want to know is, who bought the dress? And why? Sure, I like a lightweight floral midi as much as the next 30-something, and 90s brand Ghost has had a well deserved revival, but what actually happens in that moment? Symonds is spotted, and she is now a considerable person of interest (not least because here is a young woman who perhaps really does close her eyes and think of Boris). So why do we women down tools, do a Google image search and click “add to basket”? 

Of course, we see this phenomenon with Kate Middleton and Megan Markle. Their outfits are also dissected more closely than a Mueller hearing and then sell by the shedload. Kate Middleton seems to have single handedly kept Reiss afloat (although even her admiration of a nude court couldn’t rescue LK Bennet from insolvency). Meanwhile Megan’s preference for sustainable fashion has the same sell-out power. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a speech outside of No 10

Whatever it is, it unhelpfully brings The Dress to the front of the conversation. And it is never a conversation we have about men (perhaps bar Jeremy Corbyn. His light-cloured linen suits became an issue. Equally, the raincoat he wore on Remembrance Day gained column inches for being “disrespectful”).

As Boris has his stab at Brexit, I will (pleasingly) probably never know about his choice in footwear. But as Theresa May trudged between Brussels and Westminster, cartoon after cartoon featured her leopard print kitten heels. If you didn’t know better, and only gathered world news from these pictures, you’d be forgiven for thinking that leopard print was the UK’s national flag, so associated was the print with her and her role as the Prime Minister. 

This scrutiny and double standards isn’t just for women brave enough to enter today’s politics, either. Other women in the limelight seem to be held to absurd standards - most likely set by middle-aged men in polyester suits. In 2017, the Daily Mail picked up on an Australian news anchor who had worn the same blouse twice in a four month period. Meanwhile, her male co-anchor, having noticed the constant scrutiny women were under, decided to wear the same suit for a year as an experiment. No one, of course, said a word. 

There is something equally experimental about letting Johnson run the country and, to be honest, I’d rather focus on that. I’m certainly not here to defend or judge Carrie Symonds (although the fact she’s in a relationship with Boris is a bit of a red flag for me). I’m here to ask, beg, plead: let this be the last we say on what that woman is wearing. This frenzy over women’s clothes only serves as a rather neat distraction. 

Has anyone, I wonder, asked Johnson to push through the long overdue Domestic Abuse Bill? Perhaps we should talk about that. 

Images: Getty