EMMA NICHOLSON became the Tory MP for Devon West and Torridge in 1987, aged 45. Since the end of the Gulf war, she has adopted the cause of Iraq's Shias, making several trips to the Middle East. When we met she had spent two hours in a traffic jam on the way back from Cambridge, where she had accompanied her husband, Sir Michael Caine, to an agricultural convention. She looked immaculate.

When I began working 30 years ago in computers it was almost impossible to find work clothes that gave you authority and yet weren't desperately dull. I settled for polo necks and tartan skirts. Not very exciting but it did the trick. I'd been in my job only a few months when my boss selected me to go to Africa for the company. I said, 'Why me? There are others much more brilliant and experienced here.' He said, 'Because you're the only one who looks half decent.'

I think it's only right to try to look your best. The candidate who opposed the first seat I fought used to change from his pin- stripe barrister's suit on the train on the way up to Blythe into a cloth cap and workman- type suit. I always wore my best clothes and I have to say the miners preferred me because they knew I respected them.

I actually found myself relaxing my working style when I became an MP, because it's important in politics for your personality to be expressed somehow through what you wear. Having said that, I have become more serious in my dress in recent months. There is a lot of bankruptcy and unemployment in my constituency - what I wear has to reflect that.

When I go to Iran I have to cover neck, wrists and ankles, and I wear a veil. But wherever I am, during work my clothes should not distract from the job in hand. The goal is always to be able to spend as little time as possible on the way you look.

Parliament is a very disciplined place. When I became an MP in 1987 I bought some very bright jackets; it was probably my way of expressing my independence. These days I've moved into paler colours: pinks, greys and always a navy suit. I think the look of women in the House has probably softened since Mrs Thatcher stepped down. Though the pink pleated skirt suit I have on today would probably look too gentle for the House.

I trained to be a musician but I never felt as artistic as the rest of my family, so clothes are an expression of what artistic talent I do have. I always loved choosing clothes and colours for my mother and sisters.

I find I think about clothes more when things are tough. Browsing through M & S is a light relief. Finding clothes for work-related evening events isn't - there never seems to be anything between ball-gowns and suits.

Colour affects me enormously. When I worked for Save the Children, I wore a lot of red. It seemed a forceful statement. Now it seems less appropriate. When my secretary, Helen, died 18 months ago I found myself wearing a lot of black - a colour I normally find too heavy.

I think I was responsible for introducing the word 'Folletting' into Hansard. Barbara Follett had worked on the images of a lot of female Labour MPs and you could see the rash of bobbed hairstyles, the V-necks and the necklaces spreading through the House. I think Tory women MPs are too individual to stand for that.

I don't really like shopping - I normally end up dashing into Army & Navy Stores. Tailored things are obviously high priority, and nothing that creases too much - there are times when you can spend 36 hours on the trot in the House. I don't dress consciously for success, if you mean shoulder pads and so on. But I do try to dress appropriately - no trousers - and to keep a boundary between work and play. It sounds a serious approach. But then I'm a serious woman.

EMMA NICHOLSON: Navy gabardine suit. She has matching trousers, for casual wear, and a long pleated skirt for Middle Eastern travel. She prefers not to reveal makes or prices

(Photograph omitted)