There’s an inside joke doing the rounds among some female journalists and it began the day Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. While the nation waited expectantly for our new leader to make her first public statement after deposing Kevin Rudd, one respected female journalist piped up on Twitter: “I can’t wait to see what she’s wearing”.
When Julia finally took to the podium and began speaking, another chipped in: “Her hair looks good today”.
Both times, I laughed out loud. Yes, they were being ironic. But irony stems from truth. As it turned out, Julia nailed it on both counts and by this I mean there was nothing memorable about her hair or her outfit. This enabled her to neatly elbow any discussion of her appearance off the front pages, which instead focussed on what she said, and the circumstances of her ascension.
For 24 hours.
On day two as Prime Minister, Julia wore a multi-coloured coatdress and the world spun off its axis and into outer space. People were loudly shocked and horrified. Offended and outraged.
Me, not so much. I mean, they’re clothes, people, not tattoos. They come off.
Why do people take this stuff so personally? It’s not like Julia woke up that morning and thought, “What can I dig out of the closet that will really piss people off today, hmmm?” Surely she’s just doing her best. Without a clothing allowance or any professional styling assistance as it turns out.
Still, I wasn’t surprised at the mass panic. It’s far easier to have a strong opinion about what someone wears rather than what they say.
Soon after I became an editor, I was sent to an editor training day where a media expert gave us some invaluable insights into what matters most when being interviewed in different mediums. On TV, it’s roughly 70% visual, 25% tone and 5% content. Radio is 70% tone and 30% content. And print is 100% content.
A decade later, I still use this knowledge to my advantage. When I have to appear on morning TV and I’ve been up all night with a sick child, I make sure I’m wearing a tricky necklace to distract from anything unintelligible that may fly out of my mouth.
Julia Gillard wears necklaces too but they’re rarely tricky. Like most women, Julia is not a fashion risk taker. She’s not Amanda Vanstone in Ken-Done inspired short-sleeved shirts nor is she Pauline Hanson in sequins.
Early in her political career, the PM must have worked out it was best to fly under the fashion radar instead of jumping on a podium and waving your hands in the air like you just don’t care. She’s always rocked a pantsuit and now I’m guessing the technicolour dream coat is making friends with mothballs.
On the hair front, Julia’s partner Tim has helped hone her style and she finally has a look that appears easy and consistent, key for anyone in the public eye. We need our politicians to look the same on TV every night otherwise we get nervous.
It took Hilary Clinton a distressing number of years to find a hairstyle she was comfortable with and while it was a gift to the media, you could tell it was an uncomfortable distraction for her.
Does it make you superficial to comment on the appearance of a public figure? I don’t think so. It just means you have eyes.
No, Kevin Rudd’s hair and clothes were not discussed when he was Prime Minister but there wasn’t much to say. Ditto most male politicians with the exception of Tony Abbott’s Speedos and John Howard’s eyebrows. Ditto most men in fact.
There will always be more focus on the way women present ourselves because there are so many more available options. Pants or skirts? Dress or jeans? Short hair or long? Make-up or not? And then there are accessories. The only accessorising available to male politicians is a hardhat when in 10km of a construction site or an Akubra when their shoes touch grass.
None of this occasional commentary should matter providing it remains occasional and doesn’t become sexist or mean-spirited. Yes, I’m interested in what Michelle Obama wears. So sue me.
I’ve never had trouble separating myself from judgements made about my hair or clothes. This is lucky because I’ve had some shockers on both counts. Sometimes, after I’ve been on TV, someone will contact me with a blistering assessment of what I was wearing. And for years now, there’s been a campaign on my own website led by a few people who think I need a fringe because my forehead is too big.
I genuinely don’t care and by that I don’t mean I’m not vain because clearly I am. But to me, clothes and hairstyles are pretty transient things. I like playing around with them but they’re not who I am. They’re window dressing. And they’re subjective.
As my father once explained to me, whether you’re talking about furniture, clothes, art, food or romantic choices, when you say someone has “great taste”, it just means they have the same taste as you. Think about it.