When I left magazines in the late 1990s for the cut and thrust of newspapers, I was shocked by the number of women who considered fashion — and caring how you looked — beneath them.

They'd probably been brought up like me, in the British middle class way: vanity was a sin, splashing cash on anything other than cars or houses marked you out as an airhead.

Unlike me, however, they hadn't flukily found themselves working on Elle and then Vogue, where they would have gained an insight into the size of the UK's fashion industry (recently valued at $64 billion) the craftsmanship at the top level or how much clothes reveal about their wearer.


Over the years, I thought most intelligent people had realised you can be clever and love clothes; care about the Irish border issue and have views about the best shade of pale pink nail polish (open to debate, but I'd nominate Essie's Sugar Daddy).

Even our Prime Minister Theresa May, so intent on appearing dutiful, decent and in touch with hard-working families, long ago grasped that none of these qualities means you can't also appreciate a well-cut pair of Joseph trousers.

Yet this week, Jane Lunnon, headmistress of Wimbledon High School in London, suggested it's hard for women to be "taken seriously" when they spend their time "glorifying things that are trivial and insignificant at best". Teenage girls, says Lunnon, cannot watch the reality TV dating show Love Island while claiming to support the MeToo movement against sexual harassment. "We might have to decide which camp we are in," she said.

This is playing straight into misogynists' hands, surely. Why is it trivial to be interested in fashion and beauty (widely perceived to be female preoccupations, although that's a historical blip), but not in art or sport (traditional male domains)?

Who said, other than the patriarchy, that designing beautiful clothes is any less meaningful than creating beautiful architecture?

I'm not for one nano-moment defending the excruciating and vacuous Love Island.

But telling students they have to choose between it and feminism is setting up false dichotomies between what Lunnon perceives to be serious and frivolous; between high culture and low culture, women of substance and women of no "importance". Surely, if we've learnt anything over the decades since second-wave feminism, it's that we can be all these things, in quick succession, or even at the same time.

As for that much-cited statistic about more people applying to appear on Love Island than sitting entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge, well, obviously. Far from signalling the end of civilisation, isn't this evidence it's still quite hard to get into our top universities?

Lunnon says she wants to teach her pupils how to have control over their lives in the modern world. Good.

But don't tell them that the way they present themselves doesn't matter. And don't make them choose between cultivating their appearance and nurturing their brains, when some of the most successful women in history — from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama to Apple executive Angela Ahrendts, Amal Clooney to J K Rowling — know that both can help you get on.


Damn right, image is by no means everything. But it certainly doesn't preclude seriousness.

- Telegraph Group Ltd