Tracy Brabin in a Power Dress

Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin was recently the subject of much discussion on social media for wearing a particular garment in the House of Commons – it caused outrage among some members of the public.

It did this because it confused certain signals in our ways of seeing.

Men are particularly conditioned to view women in a sexual way. Ours is a patriarchal society and much of our entertainment reinforces this view.

In many western films and TV, one of the signals for a woman to indicate her availability when she’s alone with a man is through the manipulation of her clothes – if she slips off of a shoulder strap, either of a dress or a bra, for example, she’s initiating foreplay. Over time, an audience learns to interpret the shorthand.

Ms Brabin’s top had an, ‘off-the-shoulder’ design and one of her shoulders was exposed while the other was not. The effect of ‘a strap’ being half way down her right arm was to give her the look (within the context of film entertainment) of someone about to undress.

In other ways, Ms Brabin conforms to a female stereotype in a film – she’s an attractive woman with long blond hair that is often worn loose so that some of it falls across one of her eyes in a seductive manner.

But Ms Brabin was wearing the top in the House of Commons where she’s an MP so within that context many men saw her clothing as inappropriate.

The House of Commons is still predominantly a male preserve despite the increasing numbers of female MPs in it. It is also replete with archaic and incomprehensible rituals that maintain the culture of male dominance. The sight of Ms Brabin disporting herself in such a setting clearly enraged some men – here was a woman in their domain, inflaming them with her sexual power – how dare she!

Of course, if Ms Brabin had been photographed against a white background wearing the top and people were asked to imagine the context with no other information to guide them, most people would assume it was taken at some fancy dinner or some other high-society function. Asymmetry is the clue.

Asymmetry is uncommon in most of our everyday attire and is therefore a sign of cultural status. Asymmetry is usually the preserve of the empowered.

Two naked shoulders on a woman during a heat wave would have probably gone unnoticed in the House of Commons but one is making some kind of statement – but how to interpret that statement?

Given our cultural conditioning, and the education of Ms Brabin, my questions are these: why did Ms Brabin choose that top for a day at work? Did she anticipate it would be provocative in the context of the House of Commons? If she did, what was she trying to achieve?

And why did she answer her critics with a list of possible interpretations for her appearance that described empowered women?

The answers lie in the struggle for power.

In our society, women have sexual power and men have political power. A woman who commands sexual power and political power is a prospect too terrifying for many insecure men to contemplate.

2 Responses to “Tracy Brabin in a Power Dress”

  1. John Popham says:

    And the reason why she was wearing it was that she left a TV industry lunch unexpectedly early to deliver an unscheduled statement in the Commons about the attempt to exclude certain journalists from the daily briefings in 10 Downing Street

  2. ivor says:

    Thanks, John, I wasn’t aware of that. It answers all my questions about her choice of garment.

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