A short while ago I gave this interview to the PA regarding political women and fashion - rarely does almost every word I uttered in an interview get printed!
Making The Personal Political (c) 2008, The Press Association.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has apparently spent more than £90,000 to look the part during the campaign. We look at image and why women are still judged on their appearance.
By Kate Hodal.
Whether it's a pair of leopard-print stilettos, a blue double-breasted jacket or a polar bear badge, there's not much in the wardrobe of female politicians that goes unnoticed.
Leader of the House of Commons Harriet Harman might get blasted for her dowdy dressing style, and Labour MP Hazel Blears condemned for looking dated, but not much has been said for the terrible fashion antics of John Prescott - nor have whole style spreads been dedicated to male politicians' favourite designers or colour patterns.
Now that American Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's recent shopping spree has clocked in at a whopping 150,000 dollars, we have to ask what it is that makes us focus so much on a woman's - and not a man's - look.
In just a few short months, the Alaska Governor's style has inspired a host of Primark knock-offs and reportedly set a standard for a brand-new line of Orthodox Jew wigs. To top it all off, she's even managed to be the motivation behind an adult erotic film.
Like Hilary Clinton, Theresa May or Tessa Jowell, what Sarah Palin wears often seems to make a greater impression than what she says. But just what goes into making a female politician look the 'part'? And why do they have to bother anyway?
DRESSING UP, DRESSING DOWN
"The pressure to look good as a female politician is quite intense," says Nadine Dorries , Tory MP for mid-Bedfordshire, who calls her own look "clean" and "well-tailored".
"Not a single week passes without one of my constituents commenting on my clothes - whether they've seen me on TV or in the office - so what I wear is, irritatingly, important."
While male politicians can get away with rotating a few good suits, a handful of ties and a couple pairs of shoes, their female counterparts are expected to vamp up the fashion stakes, says Angela Marshall, an image and style consultant to MPs and City workers.
"Women get far more noticed than men," explains the founder of Appearance Management.
"In part it's because there are fewer women in office, so they stand out more."
Perhaps women get noticed more than men in society anyway - but in politics, all that attention isn't necessarily warranted, counters Dorries.
"It's so irritating that what we wear and how we look is commented on and dissected to bits when nothing is said about men," laments the former BUPA director.
"When the sun begins to shine in the spring and male MPs don those ridiculous safari suits like they're in the bush in Africa, no one bats an eyelash. But the minute we put on summer dresses the tabloids say, 'Spring is here!'.
"We might not be used to having women in high profile positions, but come on."
As representatives of the public, politicians - female or not - are arguably expected to mirror the aspirations, motives and standards of their constituents. Hence the shock that a 150,000 shopping spree of a so-called hockey mom can inspire when voters are struggling to pay their mortgage, says Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan.
"If you've got a candidate whose persona centres on small-town America, Joe Six-Pack, and lots and lots of 'you betcha'," she wrote this week, "what business do you have connecting her to Neiman [Marcus], Saks [Fifth Avenue] and Barneys, specialty stores... that epitomise upscale, rarefied, luxury consumption?"
While she is quick to say she "wouldn't spend anything like that on clothes", Dorries finds Palin's shop-til-you-drop at the US equivalents of Harrods and Harvey Nichols understandable.
"Personally, I don't think that 150,000 dollars is that extortionate a sum to spend for someone running as vice-presidential candidate in the American elections: it's the equivalent of a UK megastar going out on tour."
But stylist consultant Marshall doesn't agree.
"They didn't need to spend so much money on her," she counters.
"People expect her to look smart - but 150,000 is quite a lot.
"Still, a lot of female politicians seem to have gone to uni, come out, and been concerned about showing off their intelligence to do the job - to the detriment of their appearance," argues the former banker.
Dorries, who has made recent headlines for her stance on late-term abortions, argues that much of 'dressing the part' means 'feeling the part' - and that just because she's a hockey mom, Sarah Palin shouldn't have to dress a certain way.
"Ok, so she's a hockey mom - but what does that mean? That she should dress in dowdy clothes?
"I'm a mum and at this moment I'm reading a climate change bill I have to speak on later, cooking hotdogs for my daughter and her three friends before they play a match of tennis - and I'm wearing a high-end designer suit with a leather collar.
"It's not so much about what you wear but how you feel when you're wearing it, so you feel comfortable in yourself when you stand up there on a podium addressing the public."
Levels of comfort depend on person to person, however, as exemplified by Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Theresa May, who made headlines in 2002 when she addressed a Tory conference in leopard-print stilettos (and was slated by the Guardian's Hadley Freeman, who called the shoes "outdated, a little bonkers, intrinsically associated with the late 70s and somehow redolent of very tacky and somewhat distasteful sex").
In comparison, Labour women Tessa Jowell, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Harriet Harman have all come under the scrupulous eye of unimpressed fashion columnists and editors. Sarah Mower of the Daily Telegraph called their apparent collective "hatred of fashion" a "national embarrassment, lagging as they do so humiliatingly behind international standards".
But who sets those standards? Hilary Clinton has certainly won herself no fashion awards with her orange trousers and bad haircuts ("her stylist should be taken out and shot," Dorries says), whereas French leading lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy seems to have set the bar so high with her former-model figure and fashion sense that very few women, politicians or not, could compare.
"Count on the French to know how to do it right," says Dorries.
"I'd like to take a leaf out of Segolene Royal's book, the contender against Sarkozy for the French presidency.
"She always looks very Prussian, sleek and chic - she is definitely my [wardrobe] role model."
Perhaps the role model who helped get so many women into the political limelight should be given a closer look, however - because would Margaret Thatcher, with her blue suits and pearl necklaces, cut it now in the style stakes?
"Margaret Thatcher was a stylish, classic dresser and liked to be feminine," says Marshall.
"She'd wear skirts instead of trousers, and she had some colour in her wardrobe and liked to wear a bit of make up - which a lot of women these days seem to go without."
But Dorries isn't so convinced.
"She is the embodiment of strength and she represented that message for the times she was in," she says.
"But now we're in a severe economic meltdown and will be for the next few years, and I think someone looking as severe as Thatcher just wouldn't cut it.
"Just like everyone else, I want someone I can relate to."