The fashion police blitz on “rural Surrey”

Trinny and Susannah are something of a national institution here; they are best known as the faces of What Not to Wear and a series of less well-known programmes since they left BBC and the WNTW brand. Last night, they appeared on ITV in Trinny and Susannah Meet Their Match, in which they attempted to correct the alleged sartorial misdemeanours of the ladies of rural England. The premise was that they would live the lives of one of them for a while - the mayor of Uckfield, Sussex, and a lady Anglican vicar from somewhere in the Midlands - and then try to get them to change their habits.

Trin and Sue have, so I’ve read, been much less of a big draw recently, since Gok Wan on Channel 4 with his “gay best friend” act has been able to get even more intrusive and even more physical than they used to be. This is not to say that some of the mistakes they point out are not real ones, but like Gok Wan, they really do not see any point in clothes which do not show off their subjects’ bodies, or at least, they do not really see why a woman shouldn’t want to show them off. This was clearly on display last night. But first, a bit about the stereotypes.

This looked like telly which was aimed at a certain, probably foreign, audience. The village fair at which their re-dressed country ladies were put on display looked like something out of The Midsomer Murders, and the location was described as “Godstone in rural Surrey”. Where is rural Surrey exactly? I grew up in urban Surrey (Croydon), and I still live there (New Malden), and rural Surrey - at least, the bit in which Godstone lies, namely the string of small towns and villages along the A25 - is what we call the “stockbroker belt”, where there are a lot of commuters who drive daily to highly paid jobs in Croydon (about half an hour away in the case of Godstone if the traffic’s good) or Kingston, or commute by train to highly paid jobs in London. It was probably the biggest beneficiary of the now-burst housing bubble and probably most of the cars parked there are expensive gas-guzzlers. Godstone is best-known as junction 6 on the M25 and is what Americans call an exurb - an outlying suburb. It only looks rural.

Still, the ladies had class. Shame Trin and Sue couldn’t see that. One of them fetched up in a long dress with a recurring pink design; I could not tell whether they were lips or some sort of flower. She also had a bright pink scarf and a hat on. The clothes were not to my taste, but at least she had personality. Trin and Sue couldn’t see that. Then there was the mayor of Uckfield, a rather endearing 38-year-old who was accused of looking 50. The problem was that her clothes did look rather nice, if conservative, and it was not her clothes which made her look older: she just did. Trin and Sue couldn’t see that, either.

The two women went on about the common fashion misdemeanours of “rural” women - principally the “frumpy” shapes and floaty florals. They wanted them to show a bit of leg and a bit of cleavage when some of them clearly said they did not feel comfortable doing so, the mayor in particular, and the Sunday school teacher made it clear that they found their questioner’s exposed bra “unnecessary”. While some of the women did stand up for themselves and told Trin and Sue that they did not feel comfortable in clothes which exposed more cleavage than they were used to, the lady vicar and Sunday school teacher ended up showing a lot more leg and we saw more of the others’ cleavage at the Godstone Village Fayre as well, not to mention the lady who ended up in a jacket which seemed to be too gathered in at the waist for the stiff fabric it was made from.

The problem with these women and their act is that they do not seem to realise that people have different personalities, that not everyone is an extrovert, that the reticence and modesty that obviously irritate them are qualities others find endearing, and that not every woman wants to show off her body as if it is their biggest asset. In some situations it is plain inappropriate, and Sunday schools and other religious establishments definitely fall into that category. Why would you want a female vicar to wear a knee-length skirt, any more than you would want a male vicar to wear shorts? The clerical collar combined with that dress really did look ridiculous (and vicars do not wear their collars all the time, although they generally do on clerical duty and public appearances). The voice-over talks about women making the most of their femininity, but for most people femininity means more than just cleavage and legs.

Why would any of these ladies want to take advice off Trinny and Susannah anyway? They are women who have real positions of influence and authority in their communities. Some of them were doing jobs which women actually campaigned for years to be able to do. What influence do Trinny and Susannah have? The most they can achieve is getting women to show a bit more flesh. Big deal. The bottom line is that they are city girls who find provincial (since Uckfield is even less rural than Godstone) habits a bit stuck in the past, and do not consider whether present-day fashions have much more to offer. Well, some of us like the old stuff. Flowers are pretty, and colourful, flowing clothes (not that I think for a minute that all women in the country dress like that) liven up the place, and some find them more comfortable than anything “fitted” and constricting. I saw women with grace, class and personality, and all Trinny and Sue saw was floaty this and frumpy that.

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