If you’ve ever seen Kevin Spacey double knock a desk in his acclaimed role as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, you may have noticed that for all of his questionable qualities, bad taste was definitely not one of them. Tailored suits, pristine shirts and an eye for accessorising without appearing gauche were sartorial tactics used to lull you into an, albeit false, sense of security. To be honest, the man makes a lust for power at all costs look good.
It’s a shame the same can’t be said about our own male politicians. Instead we get budgie smugglers, Lycra and baggy tracksuit pants on a morning power walk.
For a gig that guarantees a life in the public eye and places an undeniable emphasis on image, our national representatives are regularly falling flat when it comes to the style stakes. Suits are often ill-fitting (ahem, Bill Shorten), grooming is negligible (c’mon gents, you should know by now that hair product and moisturiser is NOT the enemy) and the only accessorising that any of them seem to know how to do is to don a hard hat when visiting a construction site.
Part of the problem could lie in the contradictory nature of the political image – the need to appear successful and assured battling with the equally important need to be considered relatable, causing a confusing jumble of aesthetic sensibilities.
Mind you, this didn’t seem to be an issue for the political giants of yesteryear such as Paul Keating, whose rhetoric skills during debate and economic brilliance were outshined only by the cut of his Italian suits; or Malcolm Fraser, whose vision for a multicultural Australia was as inspiring as his fondness for subtle pattern and pocket squares; and let’s not mention the fact that, before his untimely disappearance, Harold Holt in 1953, and in 1954 was named one of Australia’s six best-dressed men.
So what are our current representatives getting so wrong?
To be honest, it’s not so much wrong as it is uninspired (although Greg Hunt’s penchant for wearing clashing patterns and Casio watches with suits makes as much sense as his stance on climate change). Much like their ambivalent approach to policy, our political leaders have become reluctant to take risks when it comes to sartorial expression.
Some have dubbed it the “Presidential effect”, with politicians seemingly taking their style cues from US President Barrack Obama’s carefully non-descript mode of dress.
It’s a back-to-basics, minimalist approach to the power dressing – single colour tie (most often blue), navy blue suit and the ubiquitous white shirt. It’s a selection also jokingly known as the ‘purity colours’, used to signify traits such as reliability and stability – a subtle hint that situations can be the exact opposite.
Then there’s the (not so) small matter of tailoring and fit. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is a serial offender when it comes to wearing jackets that are too large across the shoulders or too full in the body, making him look like someone who just borrowed their favourite uncles only suit. Which is okay when you’re 16* but not when you’re Leader of the Opposition.
It could also be that an interest in fashion or style probably isn’t high on the list of priorities for someone who has dedicated their life to public service on a national level.
But in an age where an image speaks not only a thousand words and the perfect photo op can just as quickly become collateral damage, it’s naïve to think that paying attention to ones presentation isn’t something to worry about (Albo, I’m looking at you.)
Looking back, when Julia Gillard made her prophetic announcement that men in blue ties would rule the country, you could say that she wasn’t just indicating the disproportionate gender representations in parliaments – she was also predicting the death of individuality. Among the men, at least. That Julie Bishop can rock a mean Chanel brooch.
*this is not okay even when you’re 16.