There’s a wonderful scene in series 3 of ‘The West Wing’, when Sam Seaborn is meeting with a couple of Russian PR agents, to discuss terms for a meeting between President Bartlet and the Russian President. One of the Russians stipulates that when the two men meet, at a forthcoming event in Helsinki, President Bartlet must wear a coat. Sam, puzzled at the request, asks why – prompting the following exchange:
Ivanovich: Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik, it is freezing too cold in Helsinki, it is freezing too cold in Gstaad – why must every American president bound out of an automobile like he’s at a yacht club, while in comparison… our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.
Ivanovich: I don’t know what “frumpy” is, but onomatopoeically, sounds right.
Sam: It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know “frumpy” but knows “onomatopoeia”. I’ll talk to the President about the coat.
I thought of this scene recently when I saw the picture of Jennifer Lawrence looking fabulous sandwiched between her four horrendously frumpy-looking co-stars at a photo shoot for the film ‘Red Sparrow’.
And I also remembered numerous conversations with female co-workers, prior to my first office Christmas party, in London, aged 23. We were all disappointed that the invitations did not stipulate “Black tie” and instead simply “Dress to party”. We were all desperate to dress up in one of the many stunning ballgowns and party dresses displayed in all the shop windows ahead of the party season, but it was clear from talking to our male colleagues that many of them intended to go straight to the party in their office suits – some of them even intended to wear chinos – and we were worried about looking overdressed. Not to mention we all secretly wanted to see how the men would scrub up in black tie.
In the end, a group of us girls agreed that regardless of what everyone else was planning to wear, we were all going to make the most of the opportunity to dress up. And dress up we did. Thankfully, some of the men had decided likewise, and turned up in tuxedoes, putting their colleagues in chinos and crumpled office suits to shame.
It didn’t take many years for the joy of dressing up to fade – the sad truth is that no matter how fabulous a dress looks, it never looks good with flat shoes, and I simply can’t get on with high heels, so these days smart trousers, flat shoes and a sparkly top are about the extent of my efforts in the dressing-up department. But when I look back at the photos of that Christmas party, I still recall the exclamations over each other’s dresses, the sheer joy at how well we all scrubbed up, and above all, the excitement that we were going to an event that merited such attire.
We may sometimes forget it, because she’s been on our screens for so long, but Jennifer Lawrence is still only 27. Still young enough to thoroughly enjoy dressing up – and to want to take advantage of every opportunity she gets to do so. Still young enough to look absolutely fabulous in a plunging, slit-to-the-thigh Versace ballgown.
Her co-stars, meanwhile, look dreadful. Did nobody tell them this was a party and that they might get their picture taken? Or did they simply shrug and say, “Meh, I’m a star, I can wear what I like and I don’t care how scruffy I look”?
Not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the Twitterati feminarkies screeching about how Ms Lawrence’s attire is a depressing symbol of the patriarchy at work. Feminism is not, nor should it ever be, a race to the bottom, a battle to adopt all of the worst habits of men – in this case, a battle for a female star to look just as scruffy as her male co-stars.
In the PR stakes, Ms Lawrence won that photo-shoot hands-down. Feminists, rather than berating her for choosing not to cover up a fabulous dress with a heavy coat, should be celebrating the fact that she put all four of her male co-stars in the shade. ‘The West Wing’ may have ended in 2006 but the majority of its political and social themes are as relevant today as they were then – none more so than this one: “frumpy” is never a good look.