The work of being a woman

Greetings from Inverness! This week’s blether comes to you from the capital of the Highlands, more specifically the Premier Inn on the River Ness. I’m in town for the Highlands and Islands press ball, which kicks off at 6.30pm tonight in the Kingsmills.

It’s a black tie do and the dress code advice is “evening/cocktail wear” for women.

That doesn’t really cover it though blones, does it? We all know that getting black tie ready is about sooooo much more than finding a dress of the right length and poshness.

As a mum in my 40s, I’m not really on top of this kind of thing anymore, so I had to start the physical and mental preparations for this about a month ago!

I’m a feminist — I can say it loud and proud – but all the feminist talk in the world doesn’t negate the fact that we women have to be occasion appropriate and that takes a lot more work for us than it does for men who only have two options in terms of attire — tux or kilt — and only need shower and shave on top of that.

For women, we have to jump through a whole load of hoops that maybe we shouldn’t think were necessary. We are judged on appearance, of course we are, but there is also the significant issue of confidence. Being suitably well turned out has absolutely nothing to do, to my mind, with impressing anyone but is about knowing that you haven’t committed some dreadful faux pas by getting the presentation wrong.


This kind of thing interests me, from the feminist point of view, as does the suspicion that women who spend any time thinking about fashion must be vacuous bimbos.

I’m not saying this because I am any kind of glamour puss — I’m really not — but because it’s a kind of unwritten societal code which we are all under pressure to adhere to, even subconsciously.

I very recently read ‘How to be a Woman’ by the fabulous and fierce Caitlin Moran.

In it, she addresses this issue of being ‘occasion appropriate’ and she succeeds in squaring that problem of how we can simultaneously have a wardrobe full of clothes and nothing to wear — yeah, that old rather sexist joke about women having only two problems…

But what Moran says, that I like, is this: “Women know clothes are important. It’s because, when a woman walks into a room, her outfit is the first thing she says, before she even opens her mouth. Women are judged on what they wear in a way men would find incomprehensible.”

Women don’t fret over what to wear because they want to be international style icons, says Moran. “No — what we’re trying to do is work out if everyone that day will ‘understand’ what we’re wearing; if we’re saying the right thing, in a very nuanced conversation.

“At its best, fashion is a game. But for women, it’s a compulsory game…”

And “when a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today’.”

Yes! That’s exactly it. Presenting the correct version of yourself that you are expected to be in a given situation. That varies so much! And for women, it extends far beyond the clothes too.


In terms of getting ready for the press ball, it was easy enough to tick the ‘dress’ bit of the dress code — £49 in the Coast sale, thanks very much — but it’s the bit of the dress code that’s unwritten, between the lines, which takes so much more work.

From head to toe, what it means is this…

Hair cut and roots done (and hairdresser lined up for the day of the do); eyebrows shaped and dyed and lashes tinted; make-up fresh and up-to-date (lipstick must work with eyeshadow and nails — fingers and toes — and you should’ve had a gel manicure in a salon); appropriate underwear (bra straps must not be visible, no VPL and maybe Spanx for that bit off extra confidence); tights or hold-ups depending on personal preference and the length and tightness of skirt; shoes or sandals that work with the dress and a bag that pulls it all together.

The shoes and bag should complement but not match – and you will probably also need to dig out an evening purse to decant your cash into because your day-to-day purse, stuffed as it is with receipts and loyalty cards, won’t fit into your dinky wee clutch.

It’s even more fundamental than that, too. If you want to be really on point, you should have been hitting the gym diligently for at least a month, cut out carbs for three days before the big event, had a bikini wax (no, of course nobody’s going to know but it’s all part of feeling ‘together’) done some fake tanning (probably two nights running if it’s a DIY job) and had your teeth bleached!

Now, I have some serious tinker tendencies but even I know that this is what you must do when there is an event with a dress code. They are hoops to jump through. Go black tie or go home.

For me, making sure my teeth were okay was actually quite a biggie and I’m going to share something with you here as a cautionary tale.


Towards the end of last year — about November time — I started developing quite bad staining on my teeth and by December it was pretty chronic.

I was too self-conscious to smile but I had no idea what had caused it. I drink a lot of coffee, yes, but not that much.

I was due in for the six-monthly scale and polish last week and, pretty much right away, Margaret Ann in the dental centre knew what the problem was… Corsodyl mouthwash!

Beware, if you are using this stuff. In fact, you should probably pour it down the sink.

It seems that more and more people are using Corsdoyl but it contains an active ingredient (the antibacterial chlorohexidine) which causes severe staining.

I asked Margaret Ann what the score was. She said: “We’ve noticed recently an increase in the number of patients coming in with heavy brown to black staining and this can largely be attributed to people using Corsodyl mouthwash or mouthwash with chlorohexidine in it.

“The staining is very bad. It can cover the whole surface of the tooth, it can be very difficult and time consuming to get off and it’s distressing for patients as well because their teeth — almost overnight, certainly within a couple of weeks — can turn quite dark and quite black.

“What they’re advertising is a mouthwash that’s to be used for bleeding gums and whilst it does have an effect on bacteria it tends to be used more in patients post-operatively or if they’ve got severe gum problems and if they physically cannot brush.

“If you’ve got bleeding gums, flossing and brushing is the way to go. Floss or inter-dental brushes daily and brush twice a day. Absolutely leave Corsodyl alone unless you’ve been advised by your dentist or oral surgeon.”

So now you know! Stay away from the Corsodyl unless you are unable to brush your teeth.


I am actually ready for tonight’s press ball from top to toe.

That’s because this is the first time I will ever be stepping out to a posh do without bunions. My feet look normal… which means normal shoes!

I had my second bunion operation in August (on my right foot; the left was done seven years ago) — it’s a brutal operation, they break your toe and reset it, putting you off your feet for six weeks.

It worked out really well (for which I am incredibly thankful) — if you don’t count the fact that I kicked the bottom of the swimming pool on Monday night with my ‘new’ foot and it still hurts.

Apart from that though, the swelling from the op has finally gone down and I celebrated my new feet with a pair of very swanky heels, again in the January sale.

I would never have bought shoes like this before my operation; they just wouldn’t have fitted. They are black evening sandals from LK Bennett and they are as fine a shoe as Cinderella’s slipper.

Of course, Cinderella was a lot younger than me and the fact of getting older brings extra challenges to being black tie ready.

Eye make-up. You know what I mean. After 20 years of drawing round my eyes with black kohl, it no longer works. Sadly, the eyes are just a bit too wrinkly.


After getting off the plane this morning – lovely flight, a beautiful pink sky above the clouds and glancing views down on the Minch below — I took myself off to Debenhams for professional help.

I slunk towards the Lancome counter and beseechingly asked what sort of eye make-up would befit a woman of my age. Probably not black any more, she said gently, but something softer…

So it is that I have “something softer” in my make-up bag now and I will try to wear it with grace. After a couple of stiff drinks though, I’m sure I won’t care.

There will be hundreds of journalists at this event tonight, along with PR managers, politicians and folk from many other avenues. I’ve been invited to the VisitScotland table and that should be great fun, as they’re a good bunch and I sat with them last year too.

I am making a mental note to self, though — no matter how many gins have been drunk, don’t ask them whose bright idea the cosagach campaign was!

I’m sure the prospect of hanging out with so many journalists is many people’s idea of hell on earth. A politician friend of mine recently told me how he “hates” talking to journalists. I think it’s that idea of not knowing what they are going to do with what you say.


“I used to hate walking through the lobby at Westminster,” he said. “All these journalists looking for a story. They’re like tarts waiting for a pick-up…!”

I have to say, though — I can’t think of a better lot to hang out with. But then they are my tribe.

And I’m fairly confident I’ll be meeting the dress code; all the written and unwritten bits of it.

Sometimes, when the occasion demands you stand up to your full height… you simply have to do it in heels.


Comments 2

  1. Katie I love this post, and am smiling to myself about our swimming pool chat. Love the honesty and realism and now review my assertation and agreee, sometimes we do need the red lippy!!! Well done on your award!!! Xxx

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