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August 2022

Eyes on the ties

Recently, the new Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather – neatly attired in a suit and shirt – rose to speak in question time. But as he began to pose to his question to the Prime Minister about Australia’s social housing, he was stopped. Chandler-Mather wore no tie. For Nationals MP, Pat Conaghan, this was a clear affront to professional standards of dress. ‘This is not a barbeque’, Conaghan later argued of federal parliament.

That the lack of a tie could halt question time – even if only momentarily as the Speaker, Milton Dick, dismissed Conaghan’s objection – points to the different attitudes that still exist around dress codes. I wrote a short piece for The Conversation, ‘This is not a barbeque’: a short history of neckties in the Australian parliament and at work, sparked by this episode – that generated its own robust discussion of appropriate attire.

Federation Celebrations, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth, Exhibition Building, Melbourne, 9 May 1901. Museums Victoria, MM 134900,

It’s something that has made me pause many times as we trace these transforming standards in professional contexts against the fascinating changes in men’s fashions across the twentieth century.

Members of Parliament are guided on what to wear by the House of Representatives Practice (now in its seventh edition). The ‘Dress and conduct in the Chamber’ section outlines how clothing ‘is a matter for the individual judgment of each Member’. That is, Parliament has no fashion police, though the Speaker makes the ultimate call when challenges arise.

Broothorn Studios, Portrait of the Right Honourable Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister of Australia 1914-15. Australian War Memorial, H16067.

The House of Representatives Practice provides its own neat history of shifting standards: from the 1977 ruling that Members could wear tailored safari suits (no tie was necessary in keeping with the style), a return to ‘good trousers, a jacket, collar and tie for men and a similar standard of formality for women’ in a statement made by Speaker John Andrew in 1999, to the 2005 reminder by Speaker David Hawker that ‘it was not in the dignity of the House for Members to arrive in casual or sports wear’.

But where exactly do ties now fall in professional dress? One hundred years ago, men were just as likely to wear ties to the beach, the park, or out hiking through the bush as they were to the office. In the second half of the twentieth century, workplaces began to loosen standards, a trend that’s grown even more following the enormous disruptions caused by COVID-19 and working from home practices.

Group of young men relaxing in a park, 1900-1910. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, negative number 141888.

Politicians overseas have driven new directions. This includes Māori MP Rawiri Waititi, who was ejected from the debating chamber of the New Zealand Parliament last year for refusing to wear a tie. Evocatively describing the tie as a ‘colonial noose’, Waititi argued that he should be able to wear a hei tiki greenstone pendant at his neck instead.

More recently, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez very publicly removed his tie when he fronted the media. Motivated by the country’s devastating heatwave, he encouraged others to do so, too, to help reduce the spike in energy use.

While ties matter to some, it’s clear they matter not at all to others.

A high-maintenance masculine fashion

Tropical whites in early twentieth-century Darwin and Broome

Among many striking early twentieth-century photographs of men wearing white suits in far north-western Australia, the one below seizes attention. Four men of European descent soon to leave for a First World War battlefront appear in this photograph taken in the pearling port-town of Broome in c.1914, each dressed in impeccable white cotton drill suits.

Four Soldiers, c.1914. Broome Historical Museum Collection, 066204PD, State Library of Western Australia.

The photograph is compelling because of how little its subjects reflect the knockabout-soldier stereotype associated with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Instead of dishevelled khakis, each of the men wears a radiantly white patrol jacket buttoned all the way to the neck. Both the man standing on the left and other seated on the left exude an air of self-satisfied hauteur. One of the men has a starched stand-up collar. The other three wear detachable band collars fixed with pearl or pearlshell studs in a nod to the industry on which the Broome economy then relied.

Lorinda Cramer and I have written an article soon to appear in the journal Gender & History about white menswear worn in northwestern Australia early in the 1900s. The article explores the labour that went into making and laundering the masculine fashion for white suits in northwestern Australia – a fashion also found in tropical European colonies such as the Netherlands Indies, the British Straits Settlements and British India.

The article also explores who did this labour. In Broome and Darwin, most of the work was by men of Chinese (although some of Japanese) descent working extraordinarily long hours for tiny pay. There were also men from northwestern Australia’s First Nations who carted water and chopped the wood for the laundry coppers. They were paid only with rations and an allowance for lollies, cigarettes and perhaps a weekly trip to the local segregated cinema.

Back in the days before the new Australian government’s racist Immigration Restriction Act (1901) prevented wealthy families from importing Asian men to work for them as ‘houseboys’ in tropical Australia, the pearl buyer Ted Hunter (depicted seated in the middle of another striking photograph below) was said to have brought a Malay servant with him to Broome. One of the responsibilities of this servant was to blanco multiple pairs of white shoes for Hunter night so that he could change his footwear whenever it became smeared with red dirt over the course of the day.

Ted Hunter (seated) and other pearl buyers, c.1905, Broome Historical Museum.

The high-maintenance mode of fashion represented by tropical white suits scarcely fits into understandings of historical Australian masculinities or menswear. The latter are more often represented by wiry or burly figures in slapdash attire. The fashion for tropical whites thus points to the distinctive nature of northern Australia in the period: to its particular set of unequal labour, social, racial and colonial relations, and to the masculinity most encouraged and elevated there, invested in a certain kind of radiantly conspicuous consumption and air of easy hauteur.

Since the historical fashion for tropical whites seems exotic today, it also helps to reveal the way that dominant modes of dress also speak volumes about a society – not to mention how clothes help to make the man.


Melissa Bellanta and Lorinda Cramer, “Tropical Whites: Hegemonic Masculinity and Menswear at the Crossroads of Australia and Asia, 1900–1939”, Gender & History (forthcoming online 2022).