Suit of Power: Fashion, Politics and Hegemonic Masculinity in Australia: Part 1

Freya Jansens Feminist Foreign Policy Suit of Power Fashion Politics

This series is based on a study conducted by the author into the Australian media’s representation of the aesthetic choices of women in positions of institutional and political power, including all Australian newspapers and online news sources from 2010 to 2014.  This time span covers the five years within which Australia gained its first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. This series also includes an interview with Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner from 2007 to 2015 who offered her insights into subjectivity within hegemonic masculinity, the system that justifies and perpetuates men’s dominant status in government and society more broadly.

Part 1

In the aftermath of the MH17 airline disaster, Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop responded publicly, calling for the perpetrators of the downed plane to be held accountable. Despite the gravity of the situation, her policy position went overlooked by many in the media, including Elizabeth Clarke of The Sydney Morning Herald who focused on Ms. Bishop’s clothing choices when she made the statement to the United Nations Security Council. ‘There is no doubt Ms. Bishop’s sense of style enhances her diplomatic efforts.'The media largely chose to comment on the fashion choices of the Foreign Affairs Minister, instead of her policy decisions. This example sits within a wider trend of public attention to female politician’s appearances, rather than their politics, both in Australia and abroad.

In Australia, the past five years, in particular, have seen gender and fashion rise in the media’s spotlight, as the country elected its first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in 2010.  When Gillard became Prime Minister, the media became focused on her appearance, and aesthetics became a regular part of the Australian political consciousness and discourse.  The media’s obsession with discussing female politicians’ clothing choices, particularly those of Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop and Quentin Bryce, led to an increased awareness of aesthetics and the role it plays in politics. This focus shed a new light on the ongoing gendered nature of politics in Australia.  In her now famous ‘Misogyny Speech’ to parliament in 2013, Gillard made it clear that aesthetics and clothing were just one of the many ways that she received differential treatment as Prime Minister.  This speech about gender inequality and the new, or at least invigorated, interest in aesthetics makes studying the fashion choices of Australian women an important aspect of understanding one of the many gendered elements of our political sphere.

In the Australian Political context, the elements of gender, fashion and political power are interrelated, and these relationships matter politically.
— Freya Jansens

Fashion and foreign policy tend to be two seemingly divergent topics. In political academia, fashion has not been viewed as a topic worthy of serious scholarship, as it tends to be trivialized in media discourse.  Aesthetics, as a field of study on the whole, also tends to be trivialized. Cultural Studies is the dominant field through which to study fashion, but in doing so, the political impact of clothing can be ignored, as the cultural lens does not focus on power.  In the Australian political context, the elements of gender, fashion and political power are interrelated, and these relationships matter politically

 The Effect of Colour

After an analysis of online and print publications, it was found that colour was the focus of 34 of the 248 media articles.  The articles produced varied results which made it difficult to group together common discursive themes.  However, from the quantity of data collected and disparate topics amongst the articles, the group of 34 was one of the largest collections of similar topics, so colour was identified as the first discursive theme.  

Colour plays a large role in aesthetic choice as it can signify a variety of concepts. The main factor affecting the attention on colour is the severity of the colour, or its’ brightness.  Brightly coloured clothing, including Gillard’s orange jacket, Bishop’s orange jacket and Gillard’s multi-coloured jacket, were commonly mentioned in the media.  One garment in particular that received much media attention was a coat worn by Julia Gillard.  This coat has been described as ‘the amazing Technicolour Screamcoat’ (Cuthbertson, 2011) and a ‘bedspread’. It is widely accepted that bright colours and surface designs in fabric are distinctly feminine features in dress.

To understand this concept further, I spoke with Elizabeth Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner.  She stated that ‘the strength of the colours ‘spoke to power’. Broderick gave the example of a military-style jacket she wore to a meeting with key leaders in the Australian military to illustrate the elements of fashion under consideration in relation to power dynamics in her work.  She described the ‘strength of the colour, the fact in a sense it picked up on the emblems of the military, so the double-breasted with gold buttons was appropriate for the context’.  Broderick repeated this phrase ‘appropriate to context’ a number of times throughout our conversation, stating ‘I firmly believe that smart women dress in context...It doesn’t really matter what you wear as long as what you’re wearing is appropriate to the context in which you find yourself’.  Dressing appropriately means dressing in a way that fits in with the norms of the situation into which you are entering.  However, because men have dominated the government for the past hundred years, these norms have been defined by men.  The introduction of women into the political arena meant that their clothing choices, which differed from the masculine norm, would inevitably face scrutiny.  The women themselves often feel compelled to focus much attention on their aesthetics, knowing they will be in the spotlight.

Broderick elaborated on this point, stating ‘I needed to be dressing in a way that exuded power and femininity, when I go to women’s refuges, safe houses, kids drop in centres, I’ll wear something that doesn’t set me apart from the women that are there, so it’ll be a much more casual look and feel’.  This demonstrates that women’s clothing is less structured than men’s, and when Broderick was seeking ‘femininity’ she had specific types of garments and styles she wore to fit into those norms.  In relation to the ‘technicolour-scream coat’, the ‘feminine-distinctiveness’ of the colours plays a role in the media’s selection of the focus area.

Colour was mentioned in relation to the media’s commentary on Julie Bishop, with one piece stating that she was ‘resplendent in a pink silk jacket the hue of – dare we say it – a bougainvillea.’ The adjective ‘resplendent’ carries the connotations of rich and sumptuous colour, bringing attention to the brightness of Bishop’s jacket.   The sentence’s focus is the colour pink, showing the importance the writer places on the specific choice of colour.  The placement of the word ‘pink’ next to ‘silk’ draws focus to not only the bright colour but the traditionally luxurious fabric.  The attention paid to these two elements of the jacket illustrates the significance they play in the judgment placed on Bishop regarding her aesthetic choice.  The garment’s colour and fabric is the subject of discussion because it is not the norm; it is outside the ordinary dress code of politicians.  If it were not, her jacket would not even be worth noting.  As femininity is not part of the hegemonic masculinity, but instead a subaltern group, the elements of Bishop’s garment that represent this alternative to hegemonic masculinity is highlighted to remind us that it is not the normalcy of politics because it is worth commenting on.  Gillard is not the only female politician to be focused on;  Julie Bishop’s and Bronwyn Bishop’s jackets were described as:

‘More amber than a traffic light and brighter than a Jaffa.  It fizzed on the eyeball like Fanta from the freezer.  If she had been in her home state of Western Australia, she could have been a sunset.  On Tuesday Bronwyn also worked a citrus theme: lemon blazer and ruby-grapefruit toenails. Teamed with a knotted silk scarf, pearls and a corsage, it's possible the elder Bishop over-accessorized, but one must not quibble.’ 

This description once again shows the focus on bright colours as denotations of femininity.  The comments are disparaging of the bright colours, likening them to a ‘lemon’ and ‘ruby-grapefruit’ in a ‘citrus theme’.  Likening these colours to fruit makes their presence seem out of place and ridiculous, exemplifying how they have been labelled deviant.  

Another article mentions ‘a bold orange blazer that is Julia Gillard’s lucky fashion staple’. Once again it is the colour of the jackets that are the focus of the article. Gillard is described in a number of articles as wearing white, including ‘the white jacket she wore to see the governor-general', and speaking of the occurrence of Gillard wearing the jacket:

‘It’s the little jacket that could.  From the moment she was sworn in as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has championed the white jacket.  Every time there’s an important press conference, a national announcement or high-level crisis she’s worn the same white jacket.’ 

Paula Joye wrote an analysis of her perceived meaning of the white jacket, and the reasons for Gillard choosing to wear it so often included the emotional connotations of white.  According to Joye, white represents calm, peace and caution, all qualities required by politicians to make good judgments. Gillard changed her style from her term as Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister, transitioning from suits in black or  ‘varying degrees of beige', to more bright colours: a change that was documented in detail by the media.  Her previous choice of colours was described as ‘asexual’ and ‘androgynous’. This illustrates the connotations of gender that colour carries with it.  If someone is described as asexual and androgynous for wearing muted shades of beige and black, dull colours, then it is evident how gendered connotations carry over to brighter colours such as pink and orange.  It demonstrates why these colours, that are gendered feminine, are subjects of discussion by the media.  Bright colours represent subaltern masculinities and femininities, and because they are not complicit with the hegemonic masculinity, they are regarded as deviant, a worthwhile subject of commentary.

Freya Jansens is a policy advisor on gender equality in Australia.