Last week it was reported that the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, had decided to keep the requirement that male MPs wear neckties in the New Zealand parliament’s debating chamber after asking members of parliament to write to him about what constitutes appropriate business attire in the House.
If there was ever a year to change New Zealand’s anachronistic parliamentary dress code, it should be 2021, when the new parliament is the most diverse and inclusive ever, including 48% women, 11% LGBTQ, 21% Māori, 8.3% Pacific, and 7% Asian New Zealand members.
White male MPs, the demographic group most likely to wear a necktie, are now a minority. And yet Mallard, who has previously said he personally loathes wearing a necktie, apparently made the decision to stick with the rule after “a significant majority of members who responded opposed any change to dress standards for the debating chamber.”
Why the fuss about a simple necktie?
Clothing is inherently political in its ability to represent the values of our culture, and the necktie is one of the most politically charged items of body adornment. For those unfamiliar, the necktie is derived from the codpiece, a fabric flap or pouch designed 500 years ago to emphasise a European nobleman’s importance through his large phallic size. Today, the necktie retains its connection with the codpiece through its arrow shaped design and length that directs the eye of an onlooker down towards a man’s groin.
The modern tie’s origins lie in the cravat, the mark of a fashionable man in the 18th century, and following that a sign of a man’s social status and class in Victorian England. Today it remains one of the enduring symbols of white male supremacy, silently serving to maintain white male values and standards as the norm.
Labour’s leader of the House Chris Hipkins backed Mallard’s decision to retain the tie as part of the dress standard. Making a statement that only someone embedded in the dominant culture could make, Hipkins said “It shows respect for the institution and the importance of the role we all (my emphasis) undertake.”
The assumption that Hipkins makes with his “we”, that his dress standard should stand for all genders, cultures, ethnicities and identities, is painfully reminiscent of the time when male politicians proclaimed they were capable of representing the interests of “all” voters; a claim we now know to be patently incorrect.
In December 2020 newly elected Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi, on giving his “maiden” (another anachronistic term that requires interrogation) speech in parliament, removed his necktie after speaking about a tipuna (ancestor) who was wrongly convicted for a crime and put to death in 1865. Waititi told the House his tipuna’s last words in te reo (the Māori language) were, “Take the noose from around my neck so that I may sing my song.” Waititi finished his speech by saying he would “adorn myself with the treasures of my ancestors and remove the colonial noose around my neck so that I may sing my song”. Afterwards Speaker Mallard told Waititi that he would “indicate to him that the requirements for business attire will be applied to him before he is called to speak in this House again”.
There was something jarring in hearing the Speaker of one of the most diverse parliaments in the world telling Waititi he could not speak in the House until he effectively wore a status symbol emanating from the very period in history that led to the ravaging of Māori culture, lands and sovereignty. In 2021, no-one should be requiring any elected member of parliament who has a mandate from their voters to question dominant cultural and political narratives, to stick to a dress standard designed to promulgate Victorian white male power.
Mallard has not disclosed how many members responded to him on his question about neckties, or whether those that responded constituted a majority of MPs, or even a representative sample. Regardless, seeking voluntary opinions from self-interested persons is not a particularly effective way of reaching a decision at the best of times. If you want to change the status quo you don’t give the power to make a decision to the people who have no interest in changing it.
Forms of clothing and body adornment allow people the ability to project how they see themselves and their place in the world. 2021 should be a time when our democracy is enabling, not preventing, members of parliament with other world views, genders and values to express their respect and their political ideals and values through other non-western, non-male forms of clothing, attire and decoration.
If neckties are to be worn in the New Zealand’s parliamentary debating chamber, they should be optional.
Professor Claire Robinson is pro vice-chancellor of the College of Creative Arts at Massey University