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It doesn’t have to be blue suits and loafers! (Image: Tina Tiller)
It doesn’t have to be blue suits and loafers! (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyJuly 19, 2023

Men’s clothes don’t have to be boring

It doesn’t have to be blue suits and loafers! (Image: Tina Tiller)
It doesn’t have to be blue suits and loafers! (Image: Tina Tiller)

There’s a whole wide world of fashion out there. Why are we so uptight about men who want to explore it?

Last week, Te Whatu Ora’s chief clinical officer, Dr Richard Sullivan, appeared on Breakfast to discuss the lengthy wait times for cancer patients. Sullivan is the director of the Northern Cancer Network and deputy CMO at Auckland City Hospital, where he’s also director of Cancer and Blood. In short, the guy knows cancer. 

Sullivan said that while it’s going to take time to address patients waiting over a year for treatment, he had a plan to resolve that by the end of the year. He spoke clearly, confidently and concisely, as people are often expected to do on morning television (and, speaking from experience, likely on a fraction of their normal sleep and morning prep).

He was wearing a dress shirt with fruit on it, and a camo-fabric jacket over the top. As far as I’m concerned, he looked cool. It didn’t distract from what he was saying, perhaps because when someone who knows a lot about cancer and cancer patients is talking about cancer and cancer patients, I tend to listen to what they’re saying rather than be concerned about what they’re wearing.

And yet a specific side of Twitter erupted with criticisms of the outfit, and of Sullivan himself for choosing to wear it.

“This outfit is absurd,” said one commenter. “He is dressed like a clown”, said another. “Very distressed to find this guy’s role at Whatu Ora isn’t frightening birds out of the crop fields, but monitoring clinical performance,” tweeted Gone by Lunchtime’s Ben Thomas, and look, at least that one was kind of funny.

“Being able to reflect an appropriate level of seriousness via non-verbal communication (e.g. attire, posture, manner) is extra important, esp. if you want to communicate that you are taking some very sensitive issues very seriously,” said another.

It’s this last one that has stuck with me over the past few days. Not because it’s necessarily an incorrect take, but because it’s a boring one. As boring as, frankly, a lot of what is considered “appropriate” men’s fashion.

Richard Sullivan, talking on Breakfast about Te Whatu Ora. (Photo: 1news)

I need to stress at this point that I’m no fashion expert. My personal style sits somewhere between Little Lord Fauntleroy, a widow at her sixth husband’s funeral, and Japanese role-playing game villain. I have had to borrow clothes from friends for work to cover sombre events, knowing that it wouldn’t be appropriate to show up in a matching short suit, kimono and Chelsea boots. I’m very aware that social norms affect, and frankly infect, every aspect of life, including fashion.

Even so, I’m amazed at the narrowness of what New Zealand considers appropriate menswear in a professional setting. Just look at our politicians. Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon dress in the same limited, lightly tailored, wardrobe of dark suits and striped ties, although the latter sometimes experiments with a loose button here or there. The male contingent of the press gallery looks like a fraternity of Rodds, Gunns, Hallensteins and Barkers.

Whenever I stroll downtown, near the accountancy and law firms, the only thing distinguishing young men from older men is their hairlines. The range of appropriate men’s clothing seems less about what looks good on you, and more what looks just like everyone else. You instantly know the deal with that new business contact because he’s wearing the same suit as you, the guy who hired you, and the guy you just had a meeting with.

Our ideas about menswear aren’t just limited, they’re really dull. Have we forgotten that our capability for imagination and self-expression is what makes us human? I look at Richard Sullivan (and by the way, apparently his outfit on Breakfast was muted compared to his usual attire) and I see someone who has made an active choice about what he wants to wear. I look at Chris Hipkins and I see a man in a suit somebody else probably picked – either the person in charge of choosing that specific suit, or the guy back in the day who decided suits were what men who led governments should always have on.

Fashion should be a tool, not a cage. Clothing has functions – protection from the elements, ease of movement, et cetera – but it’s also a means of expression. It’s a way for you to tell the world who you are and what you bring to the table. When I show up to interview someone in my comfy white Good as Gold jumper, looking for all the world like I floated in from lightly spritzing my indoor garden, it’s an active choice. I wear it to put the interviewee at ease a little, or, at the very least, to give us a conversation icebreaker before we get down to business.

Hipkins at the Nato summit in Vilnius on July 12 (Photo: LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Clothing is also subjective. If Chris Hipkins showed up in that same jumper to post-cabinet, people would think he’d lost his mind. Which is a shame, because I guarantee you it’s more comfortable than anything I’ve ever seen him wear, and potentially more flattering. It’s on society – and unpaid fashion cops like those who were tweeting about Sullivan – that Hipkins, and Luxon, and their downtown CBD ilk have such limited fashion toolboxes to work with. God knows, most men could use a few more tools to help them express themselves.

This isn’t a massive issue, not at all. On the whole, nobody really cares what men wear, probably because most of our prominent men are happy to work within the limitations placed on them. Women are trapped within the “appropriate and respectable” cage too, it’s just a cage with a few more patterns and accoutrements. Remember when Hilary Barry was pilloried online for playing the controversial role of “woman with shoulder” on live TV? Respectability policing undoubtedly affects women more than men, to say nothing of the struggles that trans and non-binary people face not just having their identity policed, but the presentation of that policed too. Men get off pretty scot free.

I still think it’s worth pointing out the problem with criticising Sullivan for what he chooses to wear. Because when you start policing presentation, you’re already halfway towards policing behaviour. And the end result is a society where anything, or anyone, that deviates from a norm is deemed incorrect.

And isn’t that, honestly, just really fucking boring?

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