LONDON — Actress Bette Midler once said that “with the right footwear one can rule the world.”
Delegates heading to Britain’s political party conferences this month might settle for the less lofty ambition of dry, blister-free feet.
Matching practicality with looking the part at these annual gatherings of decision-makers, activists, lobbyists and journalists is no mean feat, according to veterans of the party conference circuit.
“Packing for conference is a nightmare, and you can guarantee to forget something,” said Kat Logut, who helps run PR firm iNHouse’s conference lounge — where exhausted VIPs can get free coffee and survival packs.
Those decamping from London to Manchester Sunday for Tory conference have had to pack light enough to navigate Britain’s strike-hit rail network — while also enduring the unpredictable weather.
“It’s much easier for men who can pack a few shirts and suits, a pair of shoes and job done. Women have to contend with the change in weather — windy conditions is a nightmare for skirts — and wearing something different at each conference,” she added.
“You don’t quite know whether to be bright and summery, or whether you have to go back to your winter clothes,” Scarlett MccGwire, a media and presentation consultant who has advised multiple Labour politicians, lamented.
“You don’t want to freeze, but on the other hand, you don’t want to carry a coat around the whole time when you’re inside,” she added.
“If someone could mash together a really nice looking heeled shoe with NikeAir technology then we’d be laughing,” Cleo Watson, a former Tory adviser, suggested, referencing the high-end trainer brand.
Fake it till you make it
While MPs, particularly ministers, have become adept at mastering on-the-road chic as they shuttle between Westminster and their constituencies week-to-week, for many activists, party conference is their big moment, with many hoping a chance connection could pave the way to a dazzling political career.
“For a lot of people, it’s a big thing going to conference,” Laura Dunn, political consultant and former political fashion blogger, said, pointing out that for some delegates it is the “highlight of their calendar.”
“For them it’s a special thing so they will wear their best bib and tucker,” she said.
“A strong mantra from quite a lot of the young people who go is ‘fake it till you make it.’ Dress for the job you want, which for all of them obviously is foreign secretary,” Watson said.
“If you want to blag your way into a drinks thing, you’re much more likely to do it if you just kind of look like you’re smart and presentable,” she added.
But Gawain Towler, a renowned Westminster comms pro who has worked for UKIP, the Brexit Party and now the Reform Party, thinks this ambition can lead plenty of suit-wearing delegates to overreach. Towler, rarely seen out of a tweed three-piece suit, witnessed fashion horrors of Tory conference first-hand last year.
“You’ve got a whole bunch of under-26-year-old people either working for, active in, or associated with the Tory party, and they can’t afford a decent suit. But they wear suits because they feel they have to — and they look like young men in the dock,” he said.
Reform Party delegates don’t dress any more fashionably, he admits, and acknowledges the right-wing party exhibits “greater levels of eccentricity.” But he thinks the lack of actual power — Reform does not yet have any elected MPs — takes the pressure off.
“They know it doesn’t matter how impressive they look because there are no jobs in the offing,” he said.
Behind-the-scenes Tories do have one helping hand: the long-serving No. 10 Downing Street adviser Sheridan Westlake compiles a party conference memo, with his personal packing recommendations — a hardy annual fixture which has become the stuff of legend in Conservative aide circles.
Dress for government
Most delegates don’t make it onto the airwaves, meaning fashion faux pas can go unnoticed beyond the confines of conference. But looking the part does matter for frontline politicians, who will likely lead news bulletins as their party enjoys its moment in the spotlight.
“You have to dress as though you’re going into government if you’re in opposition,” MccGwire said. “You have to dress as though you can be in charge of the country.”
She recalls how Labour politician Barbara Follett helped overhaul the image of a number of women in party in the run up to Tony Blair’s landslide election victory — a phenomenon which became known as being “Folletted.”
“Women MPs always find it no problem packing for conference because this is their life on the parliamentary estate. They always look really smart, and they’ve worn in their shoes,” Watson said.
“Pretty much any MP who’s had to do the traveling conference, foreign affairs stuff is quite good at just packing a quite small wheelie case, accessorizing, and they will just have shoes they know work for them,” Watson added.
Theresa May is an example of a politician that can do it all on the fashion front, according to both Waston and Dunn, who was behind a social media account celebrating May’s style while she was prime minister.
Dunn is also a fan of current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s attire — despite social media sniping from style guru Derek Guy. “I actually think Rishi does dress very well. I don’t buy into the whole the short trousers thing is bad,” Dunn added.
On the Labour side, MccGwire thinks Peter Kyle — recently elevated to become Shadow Tech Secretary — is one to watch at Labour conference. His suit worn for the broadcast round during the Selby by-election was “to die for,” she said.
For some people, dressing to impress doesn’t feature highly — and in the end doesn’t seem to matter.
Watson, a former Downing Street aide, recounts how she spent much of the 2019 Tory conference taking pictures for young Tories who wanted a photo with the former Boris Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings, who proudly eschewed sharp suits in favor of a distinctly disheveled look.
“He was obviously dressed looking like an absolute fright,” she said.