From working-class Basildon and Southend on the river, to the homogenised nouveau riche vulgarity of Brentwood and the manicured affluence of Colchester, the women of Essex are arbiters of bad taste and barometers of the county’s shifting fortunes – like Christmas trees, wealth is dangled from them in the form of glitzy baubles. The dedication to conspicuous consumption is tangible; first Lakeside, then Bluewater, and finally Westfield have sprung up within driving distance of Basildon.
Each High Street is a seemingly endless procession of beauty salons, nail bars, and estate agents; particularly important towns benefit from the addition of a big Primark. The stereotype has become an archetype, but that’s not to say it hasn’t evolved – the crunchy perm of the ’90s, fossilised by hairspray and wet-look mousse, resembling nothing more than uncooked Ramen noodles, has all but vanished, replaced by the ubiquitous sock bun. But the area’s defining feature – the insurmountable, indisputable Shibboleth of the Estuary – is the reputation.
Even at the furthest reaches of the UK and beyond, the reputation is hard to escape; in pubs in the Highlands and clubs in the States, new acquaintances will ask where the white stilettos are. There’s no denying it; the second we speak, the game’s up. Even an accent that sounds comparatively refined in Essex is instantly recognisable outside the Home Counties, and the dialect fares no better. The first glimpse of an ‘innit?’ or an excitable ‘oh my God!’ are proof conclusive, as if any were needed, that this particular specimen is a dyed-in-the-wool Essex original.
Last month, seemingly in response to UsVsTh3m’s ‘North-o-meter’, Facebook has been colonised by an Estuary variation: ‘How Essex Are You?’ Inevitably, I scored 100% – far higher than anyone else I know, and a source of enormous hilarity for those who scored less. Much of this article was composed in the stylist’s chair at Toni & Guy Basildon; the resulting cut was a layered bob, not ratty extensions, but the very fact that I feel the need to defend myself indicates how much judgement I anticipate. And if it had been extensions, should I be ashamed? There’s no need to give up your roots totally, is there?
Unlike personal politics or subcultural affiliation, our county of origin is manifestly not a conscious choice. If Yorkshire and Lancashire can inspire civic pride even in their southbound émigrés, why should other counties be a source of shame and embarrassment? Until last year, I hadn’t heard an Essex Girl joke used in earnest for 20 years – now, possibly thanks to the inexplicable recent popularity of a reality TV programme set in the county, it seems they’re back in style.
Against all expectation, though, Essex has had a pivotal role to play in women’s rights. The striking women of the Ford plant in Dagenham, demanding equal pay for machining car upholstery compared to what the men on the production line earned, were instrumental in shepherding in debate and subsequent legislation protecting equal rights in the workplace. When the cry went up – ‘everybody out!’ – the women of Essex did not falter. Earning the vote might have been the domain of genteel middle-class ladies of means, but the opening salvo in the battle for equal pay was fired by resolutely proletarian foot soldiers – the rank-and-file, not the officer class.
But what of the stereotype? Maybe it does hold some power after all. Perhaps in our hurry to defy the limitations of fashion and beauty, we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the trappings of traditional femininity hold no value. Perhaps the archetypal Essex girl is due a critical reassessment. Perhaps our intellectual posturing doesn’t entitle us to look down our noses at those who choose differently. Perhaps the hair, the heels, the makeup, are ‘glamour’ in the occult sense – a spell cast to obscure reality, carrying its own special power.
‘Innit’ is a useful filler word – if female speech is traditionally characterised by approval-seeking phatics and tag questions, why should this low-rent elision be any less acceptable? It may make the speaker sound as if they lack class, but not nearly as much as sneering at someone’s unalterable background and origins does. If an Essex girl – or, more often, whole groups of them – are having a good time getting dressed up and drinking pitchers of sticky-sweet cocktails at Bas Vegas, do you want to be the one that tells them they mustn’t?
Despite the efforts of the feminist intelligentsia to forcefully introduce sophisticated notions of liberation to the county’s oppressed sisterhood, even a fleeting visit will reveal a homegrown brand of tried-and-true female resilience. Wronged women – and there are many – will tolerate so much and then no more; past a certain point, they’re not being funny, but they’re not having it. He ain’t worth it. You can do better, babes. Ultimately we can all do better.