Parliamentary Dress

Gendered Contestation of the Political Uniform



How to Cite

Coghlan, J., & Hackett, L. J. (2023). Parliamentary Dress: Gendered Contestation of the Political Uniform. M/C Journal, 26(1). (Original work published March 14, 2023)
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14 — Updated on 2023-03-15

Why do politicians wear what they wear? Social conventions and parliamentary rules largely shape how politicians dress. Clothing is about power, especially if we think about clothing as uniforms. Uniforms of judges and police are easily recognised as symbols of power. Similarly, the business suit of a politician is recognised as a form of authority. But what if you are a female politician: what do you wear to work or in public? Why do we expect politicians to wear suits and ties? While we do expect a certain level of behaviour of our political leaders, why does the professionalised suit and tie signal this? And what happens if a politician challenges this convention? Female politicians, and largely any women in a position of power in the public sphere, are judged when they don’t conform to the social conventions of appropriate dress. Arguably, male politicians are largely not examined for their suit preferences (unless you are Paul Keating wearing Zenga suits or Anthony Albanese during an election make-over), so why are female politicians’ clothes so scrutinised and framed as reflective of their abilities or character? 

This article interrogates the political uniform and its gendered contestations. It does so via the ways female politicians are challenging gender norms and power relations in how they dress in public, political, and parliamentary contexts. It considers how rules and conventions around political clothing are political in themselves, through a discussion on how female politicians and political figures choose to adhere to or break these rules. Rules about what dress is worn by parliamentarians are often archaic, often drawn from rules set by parliaments largely made up of men. But even with more women sitting in parliaments, dress rules still reflect a very masculine idea of what is appropriate.

Dress standards in the Australian federal parliament are described as a “matter for individual judgement”, however the Speaker of the House of Representatives can make rulings on members’ attire. In 1983, the Speaker ruled dress was to be neat, clean, and decent. In 1999, the Speaker considered dress to be “formal” and “similar to that generally accepted in business and professional circles”. This was articulated by the Speaker to be “good trousers, a jacket, collar and tie for men and a similar standard of formality for women”. In 2005, the Speaker reinforced this ruling that dress should be “formal” in keeping with business and professional standards, adding there was no “dignity of the House for Members to arrive in casual or sportswear” (“Dress”).

Clothes with “printed slogans” are not considered acceptable and result in a warning from the Speaker for Australian MPs to “dress more appropriately”. Previous dress rulings also include that members should not remove their jackets in parliament, “tailored safari suits without a tie were acceptable, members could wear hats in parliament but had to remove them while entering or leaving the chamber and while speaking”. The safari suit rule likely refers to the former Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans’s wearing of the garment during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Speaker can also rule on what a member of the federal parliament can’t do. While in parliament, members can’t smoke, can’t read a newspaper, can’t distribute apples, may not climb over seats, and can’t hit or kick their desks. Members of parliament can however use their mobile phones for text messaging, and laptops can be used for emails (“Dress”). These examples suggest an almost old-fashioned type of school rules juxtaposed with modern sensibilities, positing the ad-hoc nature of parliamentary rules, with dress rules further evidence of this.

While a business suit is considered the orthodoxy of the political uniform for male politicians, this largely governs rules about what female politicians wear. The business suit, the quasi-political uniform for male MPs, is implicit and has social consensus. The suit, which covers the body, is comprised of trousers to the ankle, well cut in muted colours of blue, grey, brown, and black, with contrasting shirts, often white or light colours, ties that may have a splash of colour, often demonstrating allegiances or political persuasions, mostly red or blue, as in the case of Labor and Liberal or Republicans and Democrats. The conventions of the suit are largely proscribed onto women, who wear a female version of the male suit, with some leeway in colour and pattern. Dress for female MPs should be modest, as with the suit, covering much of the body, and especially have a modest neckline and be at least knee length. In the American Congress, the dress code requires “men to wear suit jackets and ties ... and women are not supposed to wear sleeveless tops or dresses without a sweater or jacket” (Zengerle). In 2017, this prompted US Congresswomen to wear sleeveless dresses as a “right to bare arms” (Deutch and Karl). In these two Australian and American examples of a masculine parliamentary wear it is reasonable to suppose a seeming universality about politicians’ dress codes.

But who decides what is the correct mode of political uniform? Sartorial rules about what are acceptable clothing choices are usually made by the dominant group, and this is the case when it comes to what politicians wear. Some rules about what is worn in parliament are archaic to our minds today, such as the British parliament law from 1313 which outlaws the wearing of armour and weaponry inside the chamber. More modern rulings from the UK include the banning of hats in the House of Commons (although not the Lords), and women being permitted handbags, but not men (Simm). This last rule reveals how clothing and its performance is gendered, as does the Australian parliament rule that a “Member may keep his hands in his pockets while speaking” (“Dress”), which assumes the speaker is likely a man wearing trousers.

Political Dress as Uniform

While political dress may be considered as a dress ‘code’ it can also be understood as a uniform because the dress reflects their job as public, political representatives. When dress code is considered as a uniform, homogenisation of dress occurs. Uniformity, somewhat ironically, can emphasise transgressions, as Jennifer Craik explains: “cultural transgression is a means of simultaneously undermining and reinforcing rules of uniforms since an effective transgressive performance relies on shared understandings of normative meanings, designated codes of conduct and connotations” (Craik 210). Codified work wear usually comes under the umbrella of uniforms. Official uniforms are the most obvious type of uniforms, clearly denoting the organisation of the wearer. Military, police, nurses, firefighters, and post-office workers often have recognisable uniforms. These uniforms are often accompanied by a set of rules that govern the “proper” wearing of these items. Uniforms rules do not just govern how the clothing is worn, they also govern the conduct of the person wearing the uniform. For example, a police officer in uniform, whether or not on duty, is expected to maintain certain codes of behaviour as well as dress standards. Yet dress, as Craik notes, can also be transgressive, allowing the wearer to challenge the underpinning conventions of the dress codes. Both Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to name just two, leveraged social understandings of uniforms when they used their clothing to communicate political messages. Fashion as political communication or as ‘fashion politics’ is not a new phenomenon (Oh 374).

Jennifer Craik argues that there are two other types of uniform; the unofficial and the quasi-uniform (17). Unofficial uniforms are generally adopted in lieu of official uniforms. They generally arise organically from group members and function in similar ways to official uniforms, and they tend to be identical in appearance, even if hierarchical. Examples of these include the yellow hi-vis jackets worn by the French Gilets Jaunes during the 2018 protests against rising costs of living and economic injustice (Coghlan). Quasi-uniforms work slightly differently. They exist where official and unofficial rules govern the wearing of clothes that are beyond the normal social rules of clothing. For example, the business suit is generally considered appropriate attire for those working in a conservative corporate environment: some workplaces restrict skirt, trouser, and jacket colours to navy, grey, or black, accompanied by a white shirt or blouse.

In this way we can consider parliamentary dress to be a form of “quasi-uniform”, governed by both official and unofficial workplaces rules, but discretionary as to what the person chooses to wear in order to abide by these rules, which as described above are policed by the parliamentary Speaker.  In the Australian House of Representatives, official rules are laid down in the policy “Dress and Conduct in the Chamber” which allows that “the standard of dress in the Chamber is a matter for the individual judgement of each Member, [but] the ultimate discretion rests with the Speaker” (“Dress”). Clothing rules within parliamentary chambers may establish order but also may seem counter-intuitive to the notions of democracy and free speech. However, when they are subverted, these rules can make clothing statements seem even more stark. Jennifer Craik argues that “wearing a uniform properly ... is more important that the items of clothing and decoration themselves” (4) and it is this very notion that makes transgressive use of the uniform so powerful. As noted by Coghlan, what we wear is a powerful tool of political struggle. French revolutionaries rejected the quasi-uniforms of the French nobility and their “gold-braided coat, white silk stockings, lace stock, plumed hat and sword” (Fairchilds 423), and replaced it with the wearing of the tricolour cockade, a badge of red, blue, and white ribbons which signalled wearers as revolutionaries. Uniforms in this sense can be understood to reinforce social hierarchies and demonstrate forms of power and control.

Coghlan also reminds us that the quasi-uniform of women’s bloomers in the 1850s, often referred to as “reform dress”, challenged gender norms and demonstrated women’s agency. The wearing of pants by women came to “symbolize the movement for women’s rights” (Ladd Nelson 24). The wearing of quasi-political uniforms by those seeking social change has a long history, from the historical examples already noted to the Khadi Movement led by Gandhi’s “own sartorial choices of transformation from that of an Englishman to that of one representing India” (Jain), to the wearing of sharecropper overalls by African American civil rights activists to Washington to hear Martin Luther King in 1963, to the Aboriginal Long March to Freedom in 1988, the Tibetan Freedom Movement in 2008, and the 2017 Washington Pink Pussy Hat March, just to name a few (Coghlan). Here shared dress uniforms signal political allegiance, operating not that differently from the shared meanings of the old-school tie or tie in the colour of political membership.

Political Fashion

Clothing has been used by queens, female diplomats, and first ladies as signs of power. For members of early royal households, “rank, wealth, magnificence, and personal virtue was embodied in dress, and, as such, dress was inherently political, richly materialising the qualities associated with the wearer” (Griffey 15). Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), in order to subvert views that she was unfit to rule because of her sex, presented herself as a virgin to prove she was “morally worthy of holding the traditionally masculine office of monarch” (Howey 2009). To do this she dressed in ways projecting her virtue, meaning her thousands of gowns not only asserted her wealth, they asserted her power as each gown featured images and symbols visually reinforcing her standing as the Virgin Queen (Otnes and Maclaren 40). Not just images and symbols, but colour is an important part of political uniforms. Just as Queen Elizabeth I’s choice of white was an important communication tool to claim her right to rule, Queen Victoria used colour to indicate status and emotion, exclusively wearing black mourning clothes for the 41 years of her widowhood and thus “creating a solemn and pious image of the Queen” (Agnew). Dress as a sign of wealth is one aspect of these sartorial choices, the other is dress as a sign of power.

Today, argues Mansel, royal dress is as much political as it is performative, embedded with a “transforming power” (Mansel xiiv). With the “right dress”, be it court dress, national dress, military or civil uniform, royals can encourage loyalty, satisfy vanity, impress the outside world, and help local industries (Mansel xiv). For Queen Elizabeth II, her uniform rendered her visible as The Queen; a brand rather than the person. Her clothes were not just “style choices”; they were “steeped with meaning and influence” that denoted her role as ambassador and figurehead (Atkinson). Her wardrobe of public uniforms was her “communication”, saying she was “prepared, reliable and traditional” (Atkinson). Queen Elizabeth’s other public uniform was that of the “tweed-skirted persona whose image served as cultural shorthand for conservative and correct manner and mode” (Otnes and Maclaren 19). For her royal tours, the foreign dress of Queen Elizabeth was carefully planned with a key “understanding of the political semantics of fashion … with garments and accessories … pay[ing] homage to the key symbols of the host countries” (Otnes and Maclaren 49).

Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State, engaged in sartorial diplomacy not with fashion but with jewellery, specifically pins (Albright). She is quoted as saying

on good days, when I wanted to project prosperity and happiness, I'd put on suns, ladybugs, flowers, and hot-air balloons that signified high hopes. On bad days, I'd reach for spiders and carnivorous animals. If the progress was slower than I liked during a meeting in the Middle East, I'd wear a snail pin. And when I was dealing with crabby people, I put on a crab. Other ambassadors started to notice, and whenever they asked me what I was up to on any given day, I would tell them, “Read my pins”. (Burack)

Two American first ladies, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama, demonstrate how their fashion acted as a political uniform to challenge the ideal notions of American womanhood that for generations were embedded in the first lady (Rall et al.). While modern first ladies are now more political in their championing of causes and play an important role in presidential election, there are lingering expectations that the first lady be the mother of the nation (Caroli).

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s eclectic style challenged the more conservative tone set by prior Republican first ladies, notably Barbara Bush. Rodham Clinton is a feminist and lawyer more interested in policy that the domesticity of White House functions and décor. Her fashion reflects her “independence, individuality and agency”, providing a powerful message to American women (Rall et al. 274). This was not that much of a shift from her appearance as the wife of a Southern Governor who wouldn’t wear makeup and kept her maiden name (Anderson and Sheeler 26). More recently, as Democratic Presidential nominee, Rodham Clinton again used fashion to tell voters that a woman could wear a suit and become president. Rodham Clinton’s political fashion acted to contest the gender stereotypes about who could sit in the White House (Oh 374). Again, the pantsuit was not new for Rodham Clinton; “when I ran for Senate in 2000 and President in 2008, I basically had a uniform: a simple pantsuit, often black” (Mejia). Rodham Clinton says the “benefit to having a uniform is finding an easy way to fit in … to do what male politicians do and wear more or less the same thing every day”. As a woman running for president in 2016, the pantsuit acted as a “visual cue” that she was “different from the men but also familiar” (Mejia).

Similarly, First Lady Michelle Obama adopted a political uniform to situate her role in American society. Gender but also race and class played a role in shaping her performance (Guerrero). As the first black First Lady, in the context of post-9/11 America which pushed a “Buy American” retail campaign, and perhaps in response to the novelty of a black First Lady, Obama expressed her political fashion by returning the First Lady narrative back to the confines of family and domesticity (Dillaway and Paré). To do this, she “presented a middle-class casualness by wearing mass retail items from popular chain stores and the use of emerging American designers for her formal political appearances” (Rall et al. 274).

Although the number of women elected into politics has been increasing, gender stereotypes remain, and female representation in politics still remains low in most countries (Oh 376). Hyland argues that female politicians are subject to

more intense scrutiny over their appearance … they are held to higher standards for their professional dress and expected to embody a number of paradoxes — powerful yet demure, covered-up but not too prim. They’re also expected to keep up with trends in a way that their male counterparts are not. Sexism can too easily encroach upon critiques of what they wear.

How female politicians dress is often more reported than their political or parliamentary contributions. This was the case for Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Jansens’s 2019 research well demonstrates the media preoccupation with political women’s fashion in a number of ways, be it the colours they choose to wear, how their clothing reveals their bodies, and judgements about the professionalism of their sartorial choices and the number of times certain items of clothing are worn. Jansens provides a number of informative examples noting the media’s obsession with Gillard’s choices of jackets that were re-worn and tops that showed her cleavage. One Australian Financial Review columnist reported,

I don’t think it’s appropriate for a Prime Minister to be showing her cleavage in Parliament. It’s not something I want to see. It is inappropriate to be in Parliament, it is disrespectful to yourself and to the Australian community and to the parliament to present yourself in a manner that is unprofessional. (Jansens)

The media preoccupation with female politicians’ clothing is noted elsewhere. In the 2012 Korean presidential election, Geun-hye Park became the first female president of Korea, yet media reports focussed largely on Park’s fashion: a 2013 newspaper published a four-page analysis titled “Park Geun-hye Fashion Project”. Another media outlet published a review of the 409 formal function outfits worn by Park (Oh 378). The larger focus, however, remains on Park’s choice to wear a suit, referred to as her “combat uniform” (Cho), for her daily parliamentary and political duties. This led Oh to argue that Korean female politicians, including Park, wear a “male suit as a means for benefit and survival”; however, with such media scrutiny “female politicians are left under constant surveillance” (382).

As Jansens argues, clothing can act as a “communicative barrier between the body and society”, and a narrative that focusses on how clothes fit and look “illustrates women’s bodies as exceptional to the uniform of the political sphere, which is a masculine aesthetic” (212). Drawing on Entwistle, Jansens maintains that the the uniform “serves the purpose in policing the boundaries of sexual difference”, with “uniforms of gender, such as the suit, enabl[ing] the repetitious production of gender”. In this context, female politicians are in a double bind. Gillard, for example, in changing her aesthetic illustrates the “false dichotomy, or the ‘double bind’ of women’s competency and femininity that women can be presented with regarding their agency to conform, or their agency to deviate from the masculine aesthetic norm” (Jansens 212). This was likely also the experience of Jeannette Rankin, with media reports focusing on Rankin’s “looks and “personal habits,” and headlines such “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair” (“Masquerading”).

In this article, however, the focus is not on the media preoccupation with female politicians’ political fashion; rather, it is on how female politicians, rather than conforming to masculine aesthetic norms of wearing suit-like attire, are increasingly contesting the political uniform and in doing so are challenging social and political boundaries As Yangzom puts it, how the “embodiment of dress itself alters political space and civic discourse is imperative to understanding how resistance is performed in creating social change” (623). This is a necessary socio-political activity because the “way the media talks about women affects the way women are perceived in society. If women’s appearances are consistently highlighted in the media, inequality of opportunity will follow from this inequality of treatment” (Jansens 215).

Contesting the Political Uniform

Breaking fashion norms, or as Entwistle argues, “bodies which flout the conventions of their culture and go without the appropriate clothes are subversive of the most basic social codes and risk exclusion, scorn and ridicule” (7), hence the price may be high to pay for a public figure. American Vice-President Kamala Harris’s penchant for comfy sneakers earned her the nickname “the Converse candidate”. Her choice to wear sneakers rather than a more conventional low-heel shoe didn’t necessarily bring about a backlash; rather, it framed her youthful image (possibly to contrast against Trump and Biden) and posited a “hit the ground running” approach (Hyland). Or, as Devaney puts it, “laced up and ready to win … [Harris] knew her classic American trainers signalled a can-do attitude and a sense of purpose”.

Increasingly, political women, rather than being the subject of social judgments about their clothing, are actively using their dressed bodies to challenge and contest a range of political discourses. What a woman wears is a “language through which she can send any number of pointed messages” (Weiss). In 2021, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a ‘Tax the rich’ dress to the Met Gala. The dress was designed by social activist designers Brother Vellies and loaned to Ocasio-Cortez to attend the $30,000 ticket event. For Ocasio-Cortez, who has an Instagram following of more than eight million people, the dress is “about having a real conversation about fairness and equity in our system, and I think this conversation is particularly relevant as we debate the budget” (“Alexandria”). For Badham, “in the blood-spattered garments of fighting class war” the “backlash to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s … dress was instant and glorious”.

At the same event, Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney wore an ‘Equal Rights for Women’ suffragette-themed floor length dress in the suffragette colours of purple, white, and gold. Maloney posted that she has “long used fashion as a force 4 change” (Chamlee). US Senator Kyrsten Sinema is known for her “eccentric hipster” look when sitting in the chamber, complete with “colourful wigs, funky glasses, gold knee-high boots, and a ring that reads ‘Fuck off”’ (Hyland). Simena has been called a “Prada Socialist” and a “fashion revolutionary” (Cauterucci). Similarly, UK politician Harriet Harmen received backlash for wearing a t-shirt which read “This is what a feminist looks like” when meeting PM David Cameron (Pilote and Montreuil). While these may be exceptions rather than the rule, the agency demonstrated by these politicians speaks to the patriarchal nature of masculine political environments and the conventions and rules that maintain gendered institutions, such as parliaments.

When US Vice-President Kamala Harris was sworn in, she was “not only … the first woman, Black woman, and South Asian-American woman elected to the position, but also … the first to take the oath of office wearing something other than a suit and tie”, instead wearing a feminised suit consisting of a purple dress and coat designed by African-American designer Christopher John Rogers (Naer). Harris is often photographed wearing Converse sneakers, as already noted, and Timberland work boots, which for Naer is “quietly rebellious” because with them “Harris subverts expectations that women in politics should appear in certain clothing (sleek heels, for instance) in order to compete with men — who are, most often, in flats”. For Elan, the Vice-President’s sneakers may be a “small sartorial detail, but it is linked to the larger cultural moment in which we live. Sneakers are a form of footwear finding their way into many women’s closets as part of a larger challenge to outmoded concepts of femininity” as well as a nod to her multiracial heritage where the “progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly kids of colour”. Her dress style can act to disrupt more than just gender meanings; it can be extended to examine class and race.

In 2022, referencing the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 2021 Met dress, Claudia Perkins, the wife of Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt, wore a “white, full-length dress covered in red and black text” that read “coal kills” and “gas kills”, with slick, long black gloves. Bandt wore a “simple tux with a matching pocket square of the same statement fabric” to the federal parliament Midwinter Ball. Joining Perkins was Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, wearing an “hourglass white dress with a statement on the back in black letters” that read: “end gas and coal”. The trim on the bottom was also covered in the same text. Hanson-Young posted on social media that the “dress is made from a 50-year-old damask table cloth, and the lettering is made from a fast fashion handbag that had fallen apart” (Bliszczyk). Federal MP Nicolle Flint posted a video on Twitter asking a political commentator what a woman in politics should wear. One commentator had taken aim at Flint’s sartorial choices which he described “pearl earrings and a pearly smile” and a “vast wardrobe of blazers, coats and tight, black, ankle-freezing trousers and stiletto heels”. Ending the video, Flint removes her black coat to reveal a “grey bin bag cinched with a black belt” (Norman).

In 2018, Québec politician Catherine Dorian was criticised for wearing casual clothes, including Dr Marten boots, in parliament, and again in 2019 when Dorian wore an orange hoodie in the parliamentary chamber. The claim was that Dorian “did not respect decorum” (Pilote and Montreuil). Dorian’s response was “it’s supposed to be the people’s house, so why can’t we look like normal people” (Parrillo). Yet the Québec parliament only has dress rules for men — jacket, shirt and ties — and has no specifics for female attire, meaning a female politician can wear Dr Martens or a hoodie, or meaning that the orthodoxy is that only men will sit in the chamber. The issue of the hoodie, somewhat like Kamala Harris’s wearing of sneakers, is also a class and age issue. For Jo Turney, the hoodie is a “symbol of social disobedience” (23). The garment is mass-produced, ordinary, and democratic, as it can be worn by anyone. It is also a sign of “criminality, anti-social behaviour and out of control youth”.

If the media are going to focus on what female politicians are wearing rather than their political actions, it is unsurprising some will use that platform to make social and political comments on issues relating to gender, but also to age, class, and policies. While this may maintain a focus on their sartorial choices, it does remind us of the double bind female politicians are in. With parliamentary rules and social conventions enamoured with the idea of a ‘suit and tie’ being the appropriate uniform for political figures, instances when this ‘rule’ is transgressed will risk public ridicule and social backlash. However, in instances were political women have chosen to wear garments that are not the conventional political uniform of the suit and tie, i.e. a dress or t-shirt with a political slogan, or a hoodie or sneakers reflecting youth, class, or race, they are challenging the customs of what a politician should look like. Politicians today are both men and women, different ages, abilities, sexualities, ethnicities, religions, and demographics. To narrowly suppose what a politician is by what they wear narrows public thinking about a person’s contribution or potential contribution to public life. While patriarchal social conventions and parliamentary rules stay in place, the political sphere is weaker for it.


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Author Biographies

Jo Coghlan, University of New England

Jo Coghlan is an Associate Professor at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW. Her research interests are in popular culture and material culture with an emphasis on gender, political representations, fashion studies and death studies. Her most recent publication is ‘The Mad Kings of The Royals: Fashioning transgressions in royal popular culture television’ with Lisa Hackett (Film Fashion and Consumption 2022).

Lisa J Hackett, University of New England

Lisa J Hackett is a lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale NSW. Her research interests included popular and material culture, particular pertaining to clothing and uniform, with an emphasis on crime, gender and political representations. She is the founder, alongside Associate Professor Jo Coghlan and Mr Huw Nolan of PopCRN – the Popular Culture Research Network. She is currently working on the women pilot’s uniforms in the Second World War and fashion in crime. Her most recent publication is ‘The Mad Kings of The Royals: Fashioning transgressions in royal popular culture television’ with Jo Coghlan was published in Film Fashion and Consumption 2022 and she is currently guest-editing (with Jo Coghlan and Huw Nolan the International Journal of James Bond Studies).