What Will You Wear to the Revolution? Thatcher's Genderation and the Fashioning of Change

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What Will You Wear To the Revolution? Thatcher's Genderation and the Fashioning of Change

A 1989 edition of Marxism Today, the journal derived from the Communist Party of Great Britain, headed a page with the slogan `What will you wear to the revolution?'(1) This statement showed the impact of both Thatcherism and identity politics on British Marxism: New Times ruptured old beliefs. The crisis of the Left, inspired not only by neo-liberal politics but a female Prime Minister, produced radical reconceptualisations of the welfare state, Scottish and Welsh nationalism, gay and lesbian rights and the uneasy link between the labour and feminist movements. Unfortunately for the British Labour Party, if any person were to claim the adjectival description of revolutionary then it would be Margaret Thatcher. When mines closed, Body Shops opened. Nationalised industries made way for a share-holding citizenry. The Labour Party held caveats on social democratic rhetoric but was defending class allegiances that increasingly had popular support only in Scotland and the north-west of England. Once more, the Left had to be defensive, rather than innovative, in policy formations.

The New Times project,(2) which was instigated in the pages of Marxism Today, aimed to decentre class-based unities in favour of feminist, gay, postcolonial and youth-based struggles. Evidently, the post-1968 generations had grown bored with questions of labour surplus and the late capitalist mode of production. It was left to Stuart Hall, co-founder of the New Times project (with Martin Jacques), to articulate the dilemma for progressives.

A tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project. Of course, we're all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then -- Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration -- we go to Sainsbury's and we're just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject...(3)

This paper builds on Hall's disclosure, questioning the role of clothes and bodily inscriptions within the formulation of post-Thatcherite feminism. Certainly, the Iron Lady instigated destructive changes to the status of British women.(4) What I am interested in considering is how understandings of radicalism and revolutionary actions were changed for young women and feminist researchers by the Thatcher years. Through Marxism Today, it seemed that the Left had finally erased the border between the trivial and the serious, the connection between clothes and change (or frocks and politics).(5)

Recently, many of these identity affinities and cultural practices have been dismissed as cultural populism. My paper is written in response to Llewellyn Negrin's recent article in Arena Journal. She stated that a

danger with the postmodern celebration of rebellion through fashion is that of substituting revolution in dress for real social change. In the postmodern era, rebellion has primarily taken the form of projecting a certain image through the clothes one wears, rather than engaging with the economic and political structures which produce social inequality.(6)

This is a cheap shot at frocks (and postmodernism).(7) Fabrics are woven with meanings that allow space for play and carnivalesque strategies. It is not simply `clever clever' cultural studies to affirm the importance of style to politics. Thatcher's success was built in part on her high heels and carefully groomed hair as well as her policies. In constructing a new dreaming for a declining Britain, she represented the greatest change possible: a female Prime Minister who was `the best man for the job.' The mistake made by Labour leaders before Tony Blair was precisely the same as that articulated by Negrin: an underestimation of style in the process and formulation of change.

This project attempts to unravel the decade of power dressing, shoulder pads and filofaxes. Clothes are markers of gender and sexuality: fabric signifies (in)subordination. …