After an appearance on ABC’s Insiders one Sunday morning, I had comments from people that I’d obviously made some changes to my ensemble. On the face of it, it’s a vacuous comment you’d expect from some chauvinist with a limited world view, but that’s not the only reason Wayne Swan said it.
Like any politician, Wayne recognises the strategic underpinnings of fashion in politics. It’s a fundamental part of the game, with a lot of the key political events of the last 80 years or so being directly related to fashion. Here are just a few of the more notable examples:
The Colour of Underwear – 1950
At the height of the parliamentary debate over the Communist Party dissolution Bill, Bob Menzies was having a slash standing alongside a Labor colleague (to this day no self-respecting Lib pisses in the same trough as a National). Glancing over to answer the colleague’s observations on the day, Menzies noticed he was wearing a pair of red Y-fronts. Appalled at the undergarment iconography, Menzies ordered an audit of parliamentarian clothing and the newly formed ASIO was able to report finding a range of red underwear in drawers and stashed under bedding. This led to Menzies coining the term ‘reds under the beds’, which was later stolen by Joe McCarthy and used to great effect.
Tight Fit – 1972
Billy McMahon tends to cop a lot of flak for his Prime Ministership, although when you compare him to modern day Libs like Sophie Mirabella and Greg Hunt, the shadows fade quite a bit. Putting aside ideological differences I hold with his approach, I believe the criticisms of his short tenure are based on ignorance, even from those that worked with him. I recently had the privilege of reading through a pile of letters my hero Don Dunstan had written. A number of those letters fell during the period Don was Premier of South Australia and Billy McMahon was PM. Aside from the usual policy debates and niceties, there were many discussion of safari suits and Don had actually sent on a few to McMahon as a gesture of goodwill across the political divide. There’s a letter from McMahon acknowledging receipt and commenting on how fashionable they were.
Looking back at photos, and after confirming some data with the Parliamentary Library and the Government’s Chief Scientist (we do consult that office), I can confirm Don measured up two sizes smaller in safari suits. That means that a great proportion of the decisions McMahon took were likely affected by reduced blood flow to critical organs. That’s one hell of a silent burden for any leader to bear. I also believe their potential tightness is why the safari suit fell out of favour in spite of its inherent attractiveness as an outfit.
The Hairpiece Catalyst – 1975
No piece of Australian political history has been more dissected than the 1975 constitutional crisis. I’ve read all the substantive analyses over the years and have always felt there was a missing piece to the puzzle. It was only after a fascinating discussion with Gough in 1999 that the penny dropped. He mentioned that at one of his earliest meetings with Governor General John Kerr, he asked the GG who his wig-maker was. Gough states that the relationship was never the same after that and only worsened when he asked the same question at a subsequent meeting.
Surfing The Wave – 1983
Sometimes an outfit or a hairstyle can make a groundbreaking statement on its own. More commonly though its the combination with a strong personality that makes the difference. A perfect example of that was Bob Hawke, who I still argue is one of the most charismatic leaders this country has ever seen (alongside greats such as Julia Gillard and John Gorton). A secret to his success was the amazing hair wave he had going above his forehead. It was a gravity-defying force of nature that relied on nothing but Hawke’s own hair strength. I know of dozens of acquaintances and colleagues of Hawke’s who tried to straighten the wave and failed. Hawke used its appearance to great effect in two ways. First, when engaging in serious debates or policy discussions one-on-one, people would lose their way due to staring at the wave and Hawke would win the day. Second, it gave Hawke a great opportunity to look down blouses as the subject of his attention would be transfixed.
The Accords of the Eighties and early Nineties were a direct result of The Wave. If you’ve seen pictures of Bill Kelty’s hair during that time you’ll see he never had a chance. I do need to put one myth to rest though: Hawke’s hair is definitely his own and The Wave is not a graft of Kerr’s hairpiece provided by the disgraced Governor General feeling guilty for his 1975 behaviour.
The Fashion War on Terror – 2002
Recency of events prevents me from going into much detail, but suffice it to say there was an agreement amongst Western Allies that we needed to make key targets undesirable from a terrorist point of view. There was a view that if particular terrorists saw how large the gulf was between their beliefs and those of the countries they were trying to paralyse, that they may give up their fight. If you look at photos of Amanda Vanstone from 2002 onwards you’ll see her choice of colours and styles shifted radically to the bright and voluminous, even by her standards. I have doubts about the underlying theory, but my gut tells me one reason we’ve thankfully not experienced significant terrorist acts on home soil is due to the Floral Blouse Effect.
There are a bunch more obvious examples, from Keating’s suits, Stott-Despoja’s Doc Marten boots and Kevin Rudd’s nipple ring. Next time you think someone’s being ignorant by making comments on a politician’s fashion sense, you might like to think again as there can be a lot more to it than you think.