How the Girl's Night Out grew up
There’s a scene in the Sex and the City film where Carrie Bradshaw is having a clear-out. But before she, presumably, stuffs her hardly worn cardigans and ill-fitting dresses into a bin bag and nips around to the charity shop, Bradshaw invites her three girlfriends, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, to cast their verdict on what should stay and what should go.
There are bottles of champagne and a Best of the 80s CD, much giggling and shrieking. It looks like excellent, oestrogen-fuelled fun. But when I watched that scene recently, I couldn’t imagine having the same experience: not because I didn’t have three brutally honest girlfriends – I do, thankfully – or a wardrobe of questionable clothing – I do, unfortunately – but because it feels very retro.
As Bradshaw might put it herself: could the idea that women need a specifically girly “girls’” night out be fading?
Even when I used to gorge on SATC box sets with my six university flatmates (five young women, one camp young man), that kind of high-octane female activity seemed alien. We would give each other steers on our outfits – “it’s very… green” – but we would struggle to manage heels and cocktails for an entire evening. In fact, one particularly doomed girls’ night out ended up in a heated squabble back at home, but only after we had stumbled upon our banished male counterparts in our local.
Beyond graduation, women are finding new ways of making the most of their female friends, and the glitzy, pink sheen of Ladies’ Night is drifting ever further from relevance. Take Baileys, the caramel-coloured Irish cream that has long been marketed to women out on the razz – whether that’s young mums or grannies wearing paper hats around the Christmas table.
When it was announced the drink was to become the new sponsor of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, certain members of the literary circle groaned: “Baileys is owned by the same company as Tanqueray,” moaned one on Twitter. “Why couldn’t it be sponsored by gin, instead?” The sweet, “spend Christmas with the girls” liqueur felt an awkward partner for modern female-written fiction.
But Baileys turned it around – and in a way that showed even the girliest of drinks wanted to supply a more sophisticated market of female drinkers. They worked with the Reading Agency to invite book clubs from around the country to shadow the prize and its judges, picking 12 to read one of the shortlist each and share their views. There was a massive social media following too; an active Facebook page with an engaged audience of thousands and a Twitter campaign, #ThisBook, which encouraged women to share how a book written by a woman changed their life. Suddenly allfemale activities were being branded as thoughtful and literary.
Of course, those who are in a book club will know that they are nothing new – although it is interesting that it was a liqueur that managed to make them young, sexy and relevant. I’m a member of London Book Club, one of 12 selected by Baileys. The group was set up on Twitter by two friends, publishing manager Jamie Klingler, 36, and 29-year-old press officer Hannah Wallis, and has been going for 18 months. Between eight and 32 people turn up each month to discuss books new, such as Karen Joy Fowler’s Man Bookershortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and old, such as Brideshead Revisited. It has birthed friendships among people thrown together.
I asked some members when they last had a traditional girls’ night out and most of them looked a bit blank. Annabelle Woodward, a 27year-old finance manager, told of the simple pleasure she and a group of female friends had in attending a pottery class at an Emma Bridgewater shop: “We needed mugs for our flat and we had a great time. I love those things as much as I love something like whisky tasting with a group of girls. I always enjoy hanging out with just girls, but we don’t sit around and gossip and giggle and drink cocktails.”
Journalist Daniella Graham, 25, says: “Most people don’t consciously say: ‘We’re having a girls’ night out so let’s dress up and drink cocktails!’ but there is a perception that you have to do that.”
A recent pinkification of the World Cup proved her point. Cosmetics company Benefit set up Gabbi’s Head, a cerise “unique, fun and feminine” pub for “football widows” that allowed women to enjoy the game “pint-spill free”. While nobody would knock the fact that some profits went to domestic abuse charity Refuge, Gabbi’s Head proved a pigeonhole too far. London Book Club members Alice Sinclair and Scarlett Cayford went along: “It was just pink,” Sinclair says, “pink everywhere. It was completely deserted.”
In Manchester, home to many a feather boa-ed hen do, the city’s first ever Women’s Institute branch is halfway into its third year, and creates a new kind of girls’ night out every month. Alexandra Taylor, a 25year-old merchandiser, set up the group in 2012 because she found it difficult to meet new people after moving to the city. The Manchester WI now boasts 110 members, aged between 18 and 65, and as well as running a variety of monthly events, encourages women to socialise together in smaller satellite meetings. Some are now such good friends they have become each other’s bridesmaids.
“Sometimes we’ll run quite serious events… we’ll have speakers in from the Sophie Lancaster Foundation to talk about hate crime, or have lessons in self-defence,” Taylor tells me. “Other times we’ll focus on more traditional skills and crafts – this month we’re having a bunting making session. We like to mix it up a bit, to make fun and educational evenings where we can chat and get to know each other. Allwomen situations make it a more comfortable, safe environment for new people to meet.”
I ask Taylor if she thinks the girls’ night out was on its way out in Manchester: “I think women will always enjoy getting together for a drink and a chat,” she says. Some things will always be popular, and with good reason – they just don’t have to be pink.
Glass act: Alice Vincent with her London Book Club friends - a far cry from the Sex and the City quartet, above