Labour MPs prepare for power by dressing like those in power

The Labour leaders have a mission. Yes, that, but there is also a sartorial strategy at play. They are polishing themselves, investing in sharper suits, preparing for power by dressing?

Did you see Harriet Harman in her silver bob and light pink pantsuit at Laura Kuenssberg last weekend? What a difference five years makes.

The outgoing Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham has always dressed smartly – but generally in “serious” shades of plum or navy. There’s nothing wrong with serious colours. But how much more effective is it to wear what really suits you? Just a few years ago, it’s doubtful that she or any other female Labour MP would have dared to wear something so overtly feminine and pink, for fear of looking tacky.

Harriet Harman arrives at BBC Broadcasting House to attend the Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show

Harriet Harman wearing a light pink pantsuit on her way to an interview last month – Getty

A sharp pastel trouser suit is exactly the kind of juxtaposition women in business have been waiting for. How fitting for the former Mother of the House to show those who follow in her footsteps that there is another way to stand out in the House of Commons without dressing like Darth Vader or a dominatrix. Small shoulder pads, sleek lines, simple fabrics – this is a smart yet youthful and approachable look that is finally transforming the way female MPs dress and undoubtedly making their lives that little bit easier.

Take Rachel Reeves’ gradual evolution from the unflattering “executive” dresses of a few years ago to the sleek pantsuits of 2024. No awkwardly adjusting a bodycon dress when she sits down. Also note her decision to chop off that new, City-friendly bob.

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves and Scottish Labour leader Anas SarwarShadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar

Rachel Reeves appears for a Q&A with RBS staff in a light blue trouser suit – Getty

Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, has also gone full Anna Wintour. Okay, not quite. That would be reckless. But she has a lovely bob and has ditched some of the clunky dresses for longer hems, single-breasted jackets and brighter colours.

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House for an interview with Laura KuenssbergShadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House for an interview with Laura Kuenssberg

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in June – Getty

If you think a bob is the only way to go… Yvette Cooper, another front bencher who always dresses well by keeping it simple and always having a tailored element, has made a big move on from her bob. Going shorter suits her and she currently has a no-nonsense, modern pixie cut that works great. A lesson for any woman who is holding on to long locks that may no longer be doing her any good.

Yvette Cooper,Yvette Cooper,

Yvette Cooper ‘is currently working a no-nonsense, modern pixie cut to great effect,’ write Doig and Armstrong – Getty

Mind you, no female Labour politician has ever surpassed Barbara Castle in style, I think. Have female politicians become messier in the last six decades? Unlikely. In 1961, 50 per cent of homes in parts of the UK did not have a bathroom.

However, a combination of reverse snobbery, twisted interpretations of feminism and “wash and go” hair made it increasingly difficult for women to dress for the job. Too tailored and you risked looking like an 80s relic. Too shiny and you could be called frivolous on social media or, if you were a Labour MP, a class traitor (never mind that the “working class” traditionally care about putting on the best face possible). Too high street and you could be cancelled for supporting sweatshops.

Fashion also needs to take responsibility for the lack of choice in working women’s clothing. Alexander McQueen may have been a genius and an artist. But bumsters and Izzy Blow, shoulder pads that really pop, are not a convincing go-to for the House of Commons. Fashion loves tailoring, but has a tendency to push exaggerated shapes: oversized, too long, overwhelming. It’s making a point, and it’s not one that sits particularly well with the average MP’s daily schedule.

Like it or not, female politicians, often pushed in all directions, with little time for themselves and almost certainly focused on issues that have nothing to do with the news on Net-a-Porter or Me+Em, ultimately serve as role models for millions of other equally overwrought women.

That’s one of the many reasons why Angela Rayner is a fascinating style watch. Determined not to abandon her love of punchy colours, loud patterns and pencil skirts in the House of Commons, or be intimidated by what she sees as snobbery on the benches across the street, she’s been tweaking her flamboyance to look more polished. Red is still in – of course. But since her Vogue shoot last November, she’s been wearing it, and other colours, as a whole – a dress or a jumpsuit – to ensure a clean line and flattering silhouette in photographs.

Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and Labour leader Keir Starmer arrive at Gillingham Football Club to speak to the media on the first day of campaigningDeputy Leader Angela Rayner and Labour leader Keir Starmer arrive at Gillingham Football Club to speak to the media on the first day of campaigning

Rayner is determined to maintain her sense of personal style in the House of Commons – snappy sunglasses and all – Getty

She also seems to have stuck with the chartreuse Emilia Wickstead coat she wore in that shoot. Not cheap, but good quality and compatible with a woman from an extremely disadvantaged background who doesn’t shy away from looking aspirational.

Angela RaynerAngela Rayner

Rayner appears to have kept the Emilia Wickstead coat she wore during her Vogue shoot last November – Getty

Her hair is long but generally very sleek – someone must be a whiz at blow-drying it – and she’s toned down her makeup a bit. It all adds up. Whatever you think of her or her style (it’s undeniably loud), it’s heartening to see a woman retain her individuality, plus her love of sneakers and brothel creepers, while finding a style that fits her role.

The streamlined Labour women haven’t quite carried over into the look of leader Sir Keir Starmer, who, as well as smart suits, has also moved more towards a ‘common man’ approach than Rishi Sunak. He has aimed to look fresh and recognisable, adopting an increasingly casual stance in a black jacket and polo shirt with his trusty Adidas trainers.

Labour Party launches election campaign Labour Party launches election campaign

Starmer aims to look ‘fresh and recognisable’, say Doig and Armstrong – Getty

But don’t be fooled: that understated black Harrington is actually from cult Parisian brand Sandro and costs £500. Starmer also has a thing for Stone Island, a brand that doesn’t come cheap (jackets cost upwards of £400 and jumpers around £200) but is synonymous with the terraces.

Starmer has deliberately chosen his style of dress to avoid making headlines; which is exactly what you want as prime minister, especially when so much attention has been paid to Sunak’s expensive taste.

Following in the footsteps of Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, he likes to wear a dark shirt with a blazer and chinos – deliberately unbusinesslike, resolutely ‘plain’ – and when he does wear a traditional suit and white shirt, he often goes without a tie.

As for the trademark “Starmer sweep,” the Labour leader’s smarter approach to his hair was noted on social media during the debates. Less crunchy and heavily gelled, more natural and relaxed. It doesn’t quite have the youthful vigor of the ruffled cut Tony Blair wore during his 1997 landslide, but Starmer’s stylish antidote to Sunak’s stodgy, more democratic approach has helped to shape his image.

If Labour comes to power on Friday, we can expect further sartorial strategizing – will Rachel Reeves add more trouser suits to the mix? Will Angela Rayner throw herself into coords? Will Keir Starmer stick with his anti-corporate dark shirt or adapt to his new role on the world stage? And will they all keep wearing the “tat” that MPs sometimes mistakenly think makes them look “nice”? None of the above has been without thought.

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