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The power of fashion: why the next generation of successful women will dress however they like

Above: González Durántez wearing the red dress that stood out at the 2013 Lib Dem conference Photograph: Andrew Parsons/Rex

One of the differences between the new wave of feminism and previous ones is that feminists do not seem to care any more about what clothes women wear. Long gone are the days when being a feminist implied hating fashion and burning bras (as a 46-year-old woman who has had three children, I am naturally grateful for the latter). Indeed, since feminism has turned towards women’s freedom to take their own decisions in life, women wearing what they wish (be that plain, colourful, wide, narrow, on trend or outdated) fits neatly with that concept.

When it comes to clothes it is difficult to put the finger on what is gender discriminatory, because (unfair as that may be) first impressions of both men and women are often formed by how we look. A comment about women having to shorten the length of their skirts in order to be successful is clearly discriminatory. But if a businesswoman or female politician goes to a meeting in flamboyant clothes or shoes and people or the media comment on them, does it happen only because she is a woman? Would that happen if a businessman or male politician went to a meeting in flamboyant clothes or shoes?

Much has been written about women in power being judged mostly by their clothes (a newspaper’s parade, this summer, of female ministers as a models’ line-up being a reminder of how little things have changed since the 1960s for some). And yet there are many women in some of the highest positions in power (from Merkel to Lagarde and from Clinton to Rousseff) who are hardly ever judged by their clothes.

The same is true in the business world: nobody judges, for example, the (super-impressive) CEOs of easyJet, Morgan Stanley or the British Fashion Council by what they wear. So perhaps it is just a matter of exposure: the more women in power are known, the more they are judged by what they do and less for what they look like.

When we started the Inspiring Women campaign last year – which aims to introduce girls from state schools to female role models across the country – I was warned that some girls felt they had to choose between looks and brains, and that they often thought that “hard subjects” like physics or maths were not for “girls who like fashion”. However, one year after we launched the campaign, I have seen very little evidence of that – most of the girls I have talked to (and I have talked to many) are indeed perfectly aware that scientists can dress however they like.

It is refreshing that girls can look up to so many examples nowadays of successful women in the fashion world. In the UK alone, fashion is an industry worth £26bn, and it therefore offers many job opportunities, to girls as well as boys. That is why, as part of the Inspiring Women campaign, we are organising a Women in Fashion event with Vogue where we hope to expose girls to the wide variety of roles in fashion – from designers to models to CEOs, editors, window designers, hairdressers, make-up artists and photographers – and we will do so with role models (some of whom are also fashion models) who have reached the very top of the sector through their hard work and effort.

When at the Inspiring Women events I ask girls about who they look up to, the most recurrent name is Beyoncé, a woman who lives with daily public comments about her looks. But when I ask them why, the most recurrent answer is: “Because she is a great singer and works.”

So there you are – perhaps the new generation sees things more clearly than most of us.

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