Monday, 24 October 2011

Curtsy controversy or hatless brouhaha?

Photo: Alex Coppel
Try as one might, it is hard to ignore the royal visit in progress here in Australia. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip flew into Canberra last Wednesday night, to be greeted by our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and our Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. The sight of this triumvirate of our nation’s government –for the first time in our history entirely feminine in form – was one to warm the cockles of any feminist’s heart. The picture was not to everyone’s liking, however. The hatless Prime Minister Gillard managed to raise the ire of several unnamed monarchists (and the odd morning TV host and radio shock jock) who interpreted her bare head as a sign of disrespect to her head of state. The controversy was soon overtaken by the perceived bigger shame of her (perfectly in line with stated protocol) choice of a nod and a handshake over a curtsy.

And what did this trio of women of power wear for the memorable moment? The G-G wore a ladylike skirt suit with a peplum jacket and a hat covered in fabric rosettes; all in vibrant Barbie pink. Her Majesty wore a pale aqua coat-and-dress ensemble with matching hat adorned tastefully with feather and flowers. The PM retained her individual preference for a bold, statement jacket - this time in broad horizontal stripes of navy and black- teamed with a conservative black skirt. Was it telling that the Age described the three as “a symphony in pink”, wearing “quieter aqua” and in a “sensible navy suit” respectively? Or is just me that reads a tone of disapproval for Ms Gillard’s outfit in that comparison?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Cheryl Kernot: the "Scarlet Woman"


Cheryl Kernot was the leader of the Australian Democrats (1993 – 1997) and Federal MP for the Australian Labor Party (1998 - 2001).

Cheryl Kernot had a bit of a dream run in her early political career, as far as her treatment by the press goes. Unlike Joan Kirner, she was portrayed in a flattering yet serious light and her political clout was not questioned – perhaps in recognition of her role as leader of the minority party holding the balance of power.

Things changed on her defection to the Labor Party and as details of an affair with a former pupil came to light. In 1998, in an attempt to reverse her slipping popularity, she posed for the Australian Women’s Weekly. The photo at right of her wearing a long red dress with black lace bodice, a feather boa around her shoulders, proved symbolic of her personification as the “scarlet woman”.

Once the press were able to hold up this visual evidence of Cheryl the seductress, her credibility was diminished and her political decline assured.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Joan Kirner: "Miss Piggy for Premier"

Joan Kirner was the first female Premier of Victoria (1990)

When Joan Kirner became Premier of Victoria in 1990 constant references were made made to her weight and appearance; she was depicted as matronly and frumpy.

The Australian, August 10, 1990 called her “schoolmarmish” and the day before that The Truth had the headline “Miss Piggy for Premier”.

Memorably, she would often be drawn in cartoons wearing a polka dot dress, as in the Jeff Hook cartoon above from the Sun Herald. She was so strongly identified with this image, comedian Magda Szubanski included the frock in her impersonation. Which was odd, given she never owned a polka dot dress, much less wore one in public.

Joan Kirner and the polka dot dress have gone on to be a symbol of the low point in the sexism of the Australian press and the subject of much feminist study. An excellent article by Virginia Haussegger in The National Times demonstrates the resonance that symbol still has today.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Lady Sonia McMahon: "Absolutely Smashing"

Lady Sonia McMahon was the wife of Sir William McMahon, Prime Minister (1971 to 1972).

In spite of a long and active life as a socialite, political wife and philanthropist, the thing most Australians remember about Sonia McMahon is the white dress she wore to lunch at the White House with the Nixons in 1971.

Split to the armpit and revealing her long elegant limbs and model figure, the dress caused quite a stir in press the world around and much was made of her daring modernity. The fashion editor of the Washington Post described it as "absolutely smashing. I think the dress is a breakthrough for fashion and a blow for women's liberation."

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dame Enid Lyons: "Right on the Tick"

Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman elected to the Australian House of Representatives (1943) and the first woman appointed to the Federal cabinet (1949).

"The Dame is not only up to the minute in politics; she is right on the tick with regard to fashion. In the first photographs to hand of her as vice president of the Executive Council she is wearing with her smart lightweight suit a string of pearls, and strain of elections and all, she wears the pearls knotted in quite the latest style"

The Bulletin, December 28, 1949

The Bulletin was silent on what Robert Menzies wore to swear her in.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Australian Female politicians: Fashionistas or Faux Pas?

Since the first woman was elected to an Australian parliament in 1921 our female politicians have attracted much comment on their attire in the press; more so than their male counterparts. In our next few posts, we're going to look at some of them through the years – what they wore and what was said. Stay tuned...