How the Girl's Night Out grew up

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page - Alice Vincent

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

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