Do Bare Shoulders Belong in Parliament? Who Cares?


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

Back in February of 2020, Tracy Brabin, a 58-year-old Labour MP and Shadow Culture Secretary, wore an off-the-shoulder dress to a session in the House of Commons.  While it may have occurred to her to be a slightly off-the-wall fashion choice, I doubt she could’ve foreseen the obscene hate she’d receive off the back (or shoulder) of her decision.

The infamous dress is a black, below-the-knee number, with sleeves covering Mrs Brabin’s upper arms, and a drooped neckline exposing one of her shoulders.  I’d say the dress is rather flattering, but after footage aired of her wearing it in the Commons, she received aggressive backlash from critics, many of whom branded her a ‘tart‘ because of her attire.  Mrs Brabin even tweeted herself that she had been compared to a ‘slut’ who had ‘just been banged over a wheelie bin’.  The slurs she was subjected to are truly disgusting, over something that simply reminds people that female politicians have shoulders like everyone else.

Since the general election in January of 2020, 34% of the Members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons are women—the highest proportion in Parliament’s history.  However, this incident proves that they are still subjected to another level of scrutiny which their male peers don’t have to endure before they can be respected as politicians.

I’d love to say I’m shocked by the response Mrs Brabin received to her fashion choice on that day, but unfortunately not.  It seems to be impossible for certain people to make judgements about women in the public eye without considering and subsequently tearing apart their appearance, and female MPs are evidently no exception.

The sexualised language used against Mrs Brabin reveals the underlying misogyny which continues to manifest itself in the minds of much of the population; rather than saying she looked silly or unprofessional, the instinct was to condemn her assumed lack of sexual virtue.  This misogyny is further illustrated in the fact that calling her a ‘slut‘ is what her critics deemed to be the most severe form of insult.

Theresa May was also subjected to constant comments regarding her appearance while she was Prime Minister.  In one instance in 2017, a Labour MP tweeted an image implying that Mrs May’s political views had made her physically ‘ugly.‘  This ‘ugliness’ was evidently intended to undermine her status as the country’s leader in a way which would not have had the same impact if it had been addressed to a male politician, for whom attacking their appearance can be a way to make a jibe, but it would not threaten the public’s general perception of them.

What’s most alarming is that this condemnation came from a woman—the Kensington and Chelsea MP at the time, Emma Dent Coad—showing that no matter how intelligent or independent we are, even we women haven’t been able to escape society’s misogynistic trope of attacking other women’s appearances above all else.

A good mind is all a politician needs to be able to make sound decisions and speak for the people representatively, but female politicians are constantly judged more by their appearance than their brains.

Basically, who cares if Tracy Brabin wore an off-the-shoulder dress in Parliament or not?  The only thing that should matter for MPs when they enter the House is their ability to listen, think and speak, not what they decide to wear.

It’s the day when female MPs are judged primarily on what comes out of their mouths rather than what they’re wearing that misogyny will truly be dead in the world of politics.


Features Editor

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