Stop all this breast-beating and get dressed for success

Women are not slaves. We dress up and make-up when we want to and because we want to

AT LAST: a clinching reason for the Editor to approve the small budget adjustment necessary for Mario Testino to do me a new, ethereally radiant picture for my byline.

According to the Women of the Year survey, 92 per cent of respondents thought that good looks helped women succeed at work. Only 20 per cent thought that the same applied to men, which would suggests that the most rewarding strategy for the average household would be for the woman to get heavily into Dior and facials, and let her partner go to seed in a polyester suit.

I attend the Women of the Year shindig every year out of pure vanity It is jolly nice to be invited to be called anything of the year, and you get a bunch of flowers from Paul McCartney just for turning up. This is better than most working lunches.

But any event with the word Women in front of it comes with a hidden package of expectations and coded rules. Having established the unsurprising fact that good-looking women are successful and vice versa, the Women of the Year aristocracy felt obliged to lament this state of affairs. The result, of course, is that newspapers printed stories about how women resent having to maximise their physical appeal to get on, next to... a picture of two post-lunch stunners in micro-skirts.

Vanessa Feltz declared it "a real tragedy; women feel obliged to perform in all areas all of the time". Helen Fielding remarked that even in Japan, where they can afford the Issey Miyake to hide it, professional women are as worried about their bottoms as the flab-obsessed Bridget Jones.

The large dining-room was filled with very handsome women with the means to preserve and enhance nature's gifts. I sat at the same table as Feltz, who is peachily beautiful in the flesh, her Rubenesque proportions upholstered in acres of pale blue silk. A svelte Fielding wore her large advances on her perfectly tailored sleeve. On the top table, the Duchess of Kent's sleek mane competed in the unofficial sub-category of hairdresser of the year with Maureen Lipman.

But officially, the pressure to look good is to be lamented and we should all be letting ourselves go, because that would prove that we are "real women".

This hoary old chestnut, so eloquently and incredibly endorsed by Andrea Dworkin in the thesis that even looking slightly appealing to men was a crime against other women, is proving to be a hardy and versatile perennial. It is particularly difficult to swallow, from a room full of women who have dressed up for the event. As the only men there were serving the food, women can hardly claim that they were forced into Armani and Hermes as part of some weird conspiracy.

Ann Widdecombe and Mo Mowlam are the leading candidates for the "real women" awards, lavishly praised for looking ordinary - so much more appealing than those Identikit, aquamarine-clad female backbenchers.

But Mowlam has always used her charm to advance her cause. She did not become, in Lynda Lee Potter's curdled phrase, "like a slightly effeminate Geordie trucker" because she wanted to set aside the burdens of attractiveness. Her appearance changed because chemotherapy is no beauty treatment and the source of her continuing appeal; is the sheer spirit with which she accepts the vicissitudes of life. Whether she was tossing her blond hair or taking off her wig "because it was hot" in the middle of trying Ulster negotiations, Mo was a canny woman, aware of the response her actions would elicit.

Miss Widdecombe has leaned to fend off political and media bullies by mocking her own plainness. But she shared with readers of this newspaper her fondness for frosted nail polish, and her rather marvellous stage- strutting performance at the Conservative Party conference was conducted in a fetching blue suit, carefully chosen for the occasion, and a haircut which, while severe, emphasised the strength of her features. She may not be Smith Square's very own Helen of Troy, but neither is she unaware of the power of image - which is just another way of saying that she is aware of how she looks and the effect it will have on audiences. If you announce to the world that you are not good-looking, it does not take long for people to say, "Hang on: that Ann Widdecombe has quite nice calves/kind eyes." This is the politicians' equivalent of the ritual cry: "Does my bum look too big in this?" - to which the only acceptable response is "no".

Really, there are quite enough battles for women to fight in the workplace, at home and down at the golf club without resorting to utterly pointless breast-beating about their looks and what they should, or should not, do with them. Nicola Horlick says that women are not promoted on their appearance "but on talent and hard work". Could this be the same Mrs Horlick who is never seen without pearls and erotically carmine lips, dramatically underlining the contrast between herself and the male City drones who dared cross her ambitions?

Clever women in public life have always seen good self-presentation as a kind of shield and a sign of personal confidence, enabling them to get on with the really important bits of life. A former hairdresser to Lady Thatcher tells me that he once suggested changing that lacquer-spun helmet of hers to give a softer look. "Oh no," she said. "That would not do at all." The helmet remained.

Pilloried for her pixie boots and leggings, Cherie Blair did the thoroughly professional thing and took her own fashion sense brutally in hand and appointed a personal advisor. Now, of course, she is tweaked for changing her clothes four times a day when she accompanied her husband to China. Ill-kempt male lobby reporters mocked her for taking her own hairdresser along - but only half as much as they would have done had she turned in a bad hair day on Tiananmen Square.

I shouldn't think that the Prime Minister's wife has changed in her fundamental belief that clothes don't matter a lot. But she has learned to handle the expectations of her as Prime Minister's spouse in the most painless way. By giving the media delightful pictures of herself in various drapes now and then, she satisfies our hunger for her presence, while keeping the rest of herself private.

It does not make for lively surveys to point out that now and then, things are fine as they are. Women aren't slaves. We dress up and make-up when we want to, because we want to. We liven up our offices and cheer ourselves up in the morning in the process. Why be a wallflower when you can be in full bloom?

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