I invoke this frightful image in order to rethink the role of clothes in politics and how we might all dress a little better.
Politicians, like most public figures, are highly concerned with their appearance.
Sometimes they select clothes that attract minimal attention. For instance, the dark suit is the default option for men seeking to project an air of seriousness and professionalism without necessarily standing out. After Ita Buttrose criticised his uninspiring outfits, Tony Abbott defended his suit, white shirt and blue tie as “my work uniform”.
In the ACT election, I can’t help but associate the clothing of candidates and their followers to groups in The Lord of the Rings. Liberals dress sleek and clean like elves; Labor people favour the rough and rustic apparel of dwarves; while Greens attire is 100% hobbit.
Different clothes are often donned to grab attention and send a message. Politicians don hard hats and high-vis vests, national sports team tracksuits, hair nets and aprons, moleskins and boots, in order to be seen as one of the people. It’s also important for national leaders to wear flak jacket at some stage so that the populace gets a sense that their leaders are keeping them safe.
This parade of pretence can foment cynicism and distrust. Politicians and their minders in turn believe that the punters will only ever be able to engage with what’s on the surface.
Watching last week’s Fashfest I wondered whether our leaders could dress and act with more authenticity and flair. And can we pay attention to what they wear without being superficial? How might our attitudes to attire express and advance our deeper selves?
The first step is to recognise how, intentionally or otherwise, clothes shape our bodies and determine how others see us. There’s no clear division between aesthetics and essence, between what we wear and who we are. The stilettos that project power and sexual prowess also cripple anyone who wears them for too long. Stiff collars and tight ties constrain the neck, straighten the back and box in the soul. Clothes affect our deepest emotions by harbouring memories, preserving heritage, conveying courage or projecting good fortune (consider all sorts of wedding garments).
The second step is to dress to express our distinctive selves. The effect should be similar to the liberation that’s achieved by many through nakedness. It’s about laying everything out there. Shirts can better than skins to this end because through clothes we can not only express who we are but also who we aspire to be.
So here’s another thought experiment. Imagine if politicians ditched the advice of their minders and came to work wearing what was really meaningful to them.
Think of Premier Don Dunstan in his pink short shorts on the steps of Parliament in 1972. Fellow South Australian Amanda Vanstone was known for her vibrant blouses and persona. Natasha Stott Despoja casually wore her boots to the Senate in her first term and was thereafter known as the Doc Marten Democrat. And Bob Katter doesn’t go anywhere without his Akubra.
Picture then Malcolm Turnbull actually sporting a top hat and tails to question time. Julie Bishop would alternate between Asics running shoes and Louboutin heels, always with a power brooch on her lapel.
Bill Shorten’s insistent unpopularity as preferred leader in the polls is explained in part by his inability to project a distinctive style or look. He might start with some nice jeans and a Coogi sweater.
Andrew Barr couldn’t pull off Ermenegildo Zegna suits à la Paul Keating, but could probably make do with something from Charles Tyrwhitt. And Jeremy Hanson would look dapper in an argyle-patterned vest and matching socks.
At the very least such a scenario would give us a better sense of who are leaders are. More freedom when it comes to fashion might even loosen party discipline and provide politicians with the comfort and confidence to make the place a little snazzier.
What’s your iconic piece of clothing or outfit? What do you see our politicians wearing if given the chance (be nice please)?
Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist and is also running as an independent for Ginninderra in the ACT election. He’s wearing a much loved tracksuit top that he got just before going to Expo88. It shows very slight pilling around the sleeves. Check him out on Facebook at gokimbo or GoKimbo.com.au