Essay - Alice Rawsthorn
Fashion + Politics
There were lots of great things about being a kid in 1960s Britain. Singing along to The Beatles on the radio. Cheering at a black and white telly when England won the World Cup. Cheering again when Manchester United won the European Cup. Scoffing Fab 208 ice lollies, and so on.
The hitch was that growing up didn’t bode very well because adult life wasn’t nearly as appealing, not for women anyway. Typically they were housewives, secretaries, or anything else roles that sniffed of female subservience. You rarely saw women in positions of power, and the (very) rare exceptions seemed irredeemably dull, unless they were Barbara Castle.
There she’d be on Blue Peter or the Six O’Clock News. Making speeches. Touring Africa. Cracking down on drunk driving. Campaigning for this, that, or the other. I didn’t know exactly who she was – the Bradford grammar school girl who’d become Britain’s youngest-ever woman member of parliament in 1945, then the star of Harold Wilson’s 1960s cabinets – but I liked what I saw. Nothing Castle did was dull and, unlike every other woman within a whiff of power – the Queen, Queen Mum and so on – she always looked great with dashing red hair, natty mini-dresses and matching hats.
What I didn’t realize was quite how carefully she orchestrated every aspect of her appearance. There wasn’t an army of semiologists and tabloid style cops poised to deconstruct her wardrobe as they do Hillary’s today. And even if there had been, as I was one when the 1960s started and eleven when they ended, I wouldn’t have understood what they were talking about.
Castle would. As a woman who’d invaded a man’s world under the scrutiny of a male-dominated media, she toned her femininity up or down to suit her objectives. The young Barbara had asked for clothes every birthday and Christmas, and grew up to love them, especially expensive ones, often confiding in female journalists (almost all of whom were relegated to the “women’s pages”) that ministerial duties left little time for shopping. The quality and quantity of her outfits suggested otherwise, and however hectic her schedule, Castle rarely missed her twice-weekly trips to the hairdresser. She also scandalized civil servants by sending them out to buy lipstick, and popping into public loos to “do my face” before photocalls.
The only time she dressed down (or less expensively) was on visits to her Blackburn constituency, where she was sensibly anxious to preserve her northern-girl-made-good-but-hasn’t-got-above-herself reputation. Castle sustained the illusion that she spent more time there than she actually did by staging carefully choreographed visits packed with photo ops for the local press, who’d snap her popping into Debenhams for tights and having her hair done in the town centre before tea at an old folks’ home.
The price she paid was endless (and tediously predictable) speculation that she’d slept her way to the top. The reward, for Barbara Castle and the rest of us, was that she got there by being herself.