It is a perpetual truth that stereotypes are a distorting mirror of reality, but that they also take time to develop and therefore are often a reflection of what was, not what is.
So it is sartorially with Conservatives. The cliché is probably of a pinstriped, red-faced financier, Rik Mayall’s sneering Alan B’Stard in a Savile Row suit and striped shirt, fresh from his club. Traces of this remain in the party: Sir Desmond Swayne with his stiff collars, or Jacob Rees-Mogg in double-breasted wool (in fact he rarely wears pinstripes) and watch chain in his lapel.
But I am in Manchester for this year’s Conservative Party conference, and, my goodness, today’s Tories à la mode could not be more different. There is undoubtedly a style of dress which marks out young Conservative activists, at least the male variety.
Suits are blue or grey, and must be tight: not because of portliness, on the whole—the youngsters seem to stay whippet-thin on a diet of gin and adrenaline—but because that is the style. Jackets are bum-freezers which barely button, trousers are buttock-hugging and end no lower than mid-ankle. One or two free thinkers (perhaps from the Bow Group) eschew plain colours in favour of bold checks, but the strain on their faces shows. Swimming against the tide takes effort.
Ties are hardly worn. They survive, interestingly, at the top and the bottom of the pyramid. Cabinet ministers must wear them because, well, just because; while whippersnappers have not yet earned the right to rebel. But they are minimal, concessions to the form, plain in colour and skinny of blade. The average young Conservative would run screaming from a tie which identified an institution, whether school, university or regiment. Perhaps the Players Bar should introduce colours.
For those who have achieved a little success, prominence or notoriety, a suit and open-necked shirt is very much in vogue. I blame David Cameron, who, I suppose, had to find some cigarette paper to put between himself and Tony Blair.
Then there are the shoes. Oh the shoes. Brown is the colour du jour, and not just dark brown, but all shades, with an orangey tan seeming particularly popular. Paired with a navy suit, they are enough to make any decent man shudder, but I find myself increasingly isolated on this particular hill. At least the company is good.
I have not ignored the young female Conservatives, but they are less egregious. It sometimes seems as if Central Office issues a dressing-up box which contains a floral print dress, a black jacket and flat shoes (heels are broken out for special occasions). This year I have noticed an additional proliferation of leather, whether skirts, trousers or dresses; the effect is intended, I think, to be provocative, but in the crush of the hotel bar it just appears uncomfortably warm.
The Tories remain—insofar as this is true anywhere in politics—the glam party. Lipstick, powder, blusher, blonde hair of varying authenticity. The ladies have, it must be admitted, made an effort. And their idols, the actual Members of Parliament, are more diverse than they used to be: twinsets and pearls are out, trouser suits in primary colours are in. They can turn heads and are broadcast-ready at a moment’s notice.
Is there a guiding hand behind this fashion parade? One would like to think so—at least its owner could be given a stern kicking—but I think it is simply young Conservatives cleaving more closely to general trends in society than was once the case. They are still weird, as all political activists are weird, but they no longer dress like their parents (or grandparents). They are, I must admit with a rising gorge, forging their own brand. This may, we must conclude, be why their party has become so successful at the polls.