Something curious is happening at New Zealand’s state-owned broadcaster. In documents released to a nationwide paper, the New Zealand Herald, it was revealed that management had chosen to usher in the new year by imposing a new dress-code for its presenters that is arguably more critical of its female staff members than its male presenters. Under the guise of taking a more relaxed approach to reflect our laidback New Zealand society, female reporters have been asked to appear “less glamorous” on camera while their male counterparts have been asked to appear in more “blokey” attire (a bloke is a kind of catch-all phrase for the Kiwi man, seen as someone who is relaxed, likes the outdoors and sport, is approachable and generally a good guy i.e. not a representative of all the men in NZ). The key message the state-owned broadcaster wants their reporters to take home is that they want the 2016 look to be a more informal look, as they say, a “New Zealand” look. What does this mean in reality?
No more bare arms for the females. Thankfully the website The Spinoff has retrospectively censored images for us.
Despite the ban on bare arms, female staff members were reassured that their dress code change was more subtle i.e. a move toward utilitarianism that includes a move away from distracting patterns. The understanding is that if a woman is wearing patterns, people won’t be able to follow what she is saying. Okay. This is problematic. Reinforcing the idea that what a woman is wearing impacts how seriously she is taken is problematic, especially if you’re telling the woman doing the talking that it is her problem to fix, and not the people who are not listening to her. What this attitude is also reinforcing is the idea that if you care about fashion, you must be a superficial thinker. If you care about what a presenter is wearing then perhaps you are incapable of also caring about what she is saying. I would argue that it is the male dress-code that is more utilitarian with sleeves rolled-up (no mention of the dreaded bare arms), chinos instead of suit pants, shirts undone, and ties are only necessary when reporting from parliament or on something sombre. Got it, ties = serious.
I also resent the idea that the “New Zealand style” is a casual one (admittedly this is the country where one town’s propensity for wearing pyjamas in public was such that it made national headlines). One of our most successful fashion exports, and arguably one of our most avant-garde design houses, has also chosen to wade into the matter. Francis Hooper of WORLD has stated in another Herald article that he thinks the dress code has been dumbed down enough already for an “image-driven industry”. Consider that point missed. Reporting on news is about content not image, image is part of a package. Restricting dress, especially in ways with such Victorian overtones, undermines the abilities of the staff members. I think both Francis Hooper and TVNZ management could do with refreshing themselves with Karl Stefanovic’s suit experiment:
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.