Catwalk or conference: Spot the difference

Parties, shmoozing, babble. The twin worlds of politics and fashion

SamCam's belt and Theresa May's tartan might be what some thought were the fashion stories of the party conferences, but they'd be wrong. The real story is that the party conferences are fashion shows themselves. They are exactly like the twice-yearly carousel of ready-to-wear collections. And I should know: I think I am one of the very few journalists to have spent extensive amounts of time at both.

Let's examine the evidence. One might expect fashion types to refer to designers they've never met by their first name, as in "Oh, Donatella's really trawled the archives this season". It's suitably flamboyant. But listen out around the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, the Grand, the Midland and wonks everywhere are name-dropping Nick, Ed and Dave as if they know them. Alas, this does not translate as true inner knowledge in either setting.

Then there's the socialising. During the New York/Milan/London/Paris circuit there are endless cocktail parties and private dinners; during Glasgow/Brighton/Manchester there are chairmen's receptions and editors' parties. And everyone pretends they've been invited to the best ones. They say loftily "Yeah, I can't make it to Vivienne's/Speccy party, I'm having dinner with a top model/top source." This is generally bullshit.

The hacks attending party conference season and fashion weeks live out of a suitcase for most of a month. A brief respite back at base involves emptying one's bag of the sheaf of business cards from lobbyists and lame accessory designers, and making sure there are enough opaque black tights/ironed shirts (delete as appropriate) for the next round.

The secret, I was once told by a powerful magazine editor, was to get the coat right, and what you wore underneath didn't matter much. This is true of most fashion week events (where fash-paps stalk the entrance to each venue) and conference (where camera crews pounce for your reaction to Cameron's speech as you exit).

A sartorial howler is to wear head-to-toe the label whose show you are watching; only paid employees or B-list celebs would do such a thing. I'll admit a rookie mistake at conferences: I wore a blue/yellow print dress to both Lib Dem and Tory events (I did wash it between, honest) and was embraced by ministers at each for flying their colours. Next time, I'll stick to black.

Early adoption is everything, so the truly immersed will parrot what they see and hear immediately, even though both clothes and policies are months away from being reality (at the shows in September, we see clothes for the following spring, for instance). So the tartan outfit will be hastily replaced by the nearest possible approximation to the floral number the hottest label just shown. And junior ministers will do a swift handbrake turn from talking about unions to energy companies. Follow the leaders, if you will.

And so, finally, what do these vastly expensive, trade-only events actually mean? Let's check back in six months, on both what we're wearing and where we're heading.