Summer read: It’s time to abandon the culturally bound and frankly lazy concept of ‘business attire’, which is simply code for Pākehā visual symbols of authority, writes former Green Party leader Metiria Turei.
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Originally published on February 11 2021.
At least they are not talking about how women MPs dress for a change. From that awful Makeover an MP segment to the awarding of a prize for the ugliest jacket (me, in case you have forgotten), at least that bottomless pit of degrading, shaming, bollocky sexism isn’t being mined here. The constant criticism about how women in positions of authority dress places women under terrible pressure to conform to the presentation of power rather than be valued for its wise use. It might seem superficial to those scrolling through the before and after photos, but the power of the visual symbols of authority is very real.
I remember Jeanette Fitzsimons saying that when she first started in parliament, she was told by a helpful Parliamentary Services person to dress slightly better than the audience she was addressing because that would make them feel like she had authority on what she was talking about. And it’s true that people make judgments about your status by how you look. When you are a politician whose job is to convince people that your ideas and solutions are the right ones for them to choose come election day, how you look is really important. Which makes the surveillance of your appearance a constant worry and the pressure to comply with standard ideas of status very difficult to resist.
So while this seemingly meaningless squabble over whether to wear ties or not in the parliamentary chamber seems facile, in fact, it is a discussion about who exercises power and how that power is presented to the benefit of the individual MP and their constituency. Men’s suits are the ubiquitous visual representation of a man wielding authority and his tie is an essential element of that uniform. A suit rarely, if ever, performs this function if the person is not also wearing a tie. And so there have been constant arguments in backroom committees over many years about the definition of business attire and the wearing of men’s suits and ties. That most of the men in parliament have persistently voted to keep that archaic tie rule shows how desperate they are to retain these superficial presentations of power in the face of a changing parliament where power is arguably shifting away from people like them.
The Māori Party approach is unique in relation to the neckties business. Some might believe it to be a misuse of cultural norms but in fact, the whole question of a dress code in parliament is a cultural question – whose culture is being represented by a business attire dress code, and in the 21st century, what the hell is business attire anyway? I remember arguing with someone that my business was advocacy so why would wearing a business suit be considered business attire for my actual business of being representative?
But I digress.
It seems more than timely to abandon the culturally bound and frankly lazy concept of business attire which is simply code for Pākehā visual symbols of authority. A suit and tie is a visual proxy for power and authority in New Zealand’s western mainstream culture. The Māori Party argument is that taonga is the Māori cultural status symbol. And it’s a great argument. Taonga confers status, through the intricacy of its carving, the literacy of the design, the materials it is made from. The authority is present in the history of the relationship between its making, its maker and its wearer. Taonga is a higher status item because it is, unlike a tie, not merely symbolic (phallic some might say). If the intent of these old parliamentary rules is to visually represent the status of the MP’s role through the textiles and art worn on the body, then a taonga is a perfect status conferring object.
So thumbs up to the Māori Party for pushing this issue beyond the usual racist hysteria to a successful conclusion. And thumbs up to Mr Speaker for accepting the validity of this argument and getting it sorted.
But this won’t be the last time we hear stories about parliamentary style wars. Most of us have to live with the idea that clothing presents as status. And I understand why that is important in parliament where MPs, in the constant battle to win the contest of ideas with the public, have to use all the tools they can to get cut through. The big test for the parliamentary gallery, and the rest of us, will be whether the women in parliament – when next they are in a media round of who wore what to where and whether they look shit or not – are treated with decency and respect. Fingers crossed.