Shakespeare may say that the apparel oft proclaims the man, but plenty of shame has been brought on our parliament and our country by people ‘appropriately’ dressed for the Dáil, writes Clodagh Finn.

What you wear matters. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it does. That’s the sad truth of it.

You might think — as several wits noted this week — that the Dáil needs a moral code, not a dress code, yet most Irish people would like their public representatives to suit up.

Some 57% of us are in favour of a dress code for politicians, according to a Herald/Millward Brown poll carried out in Dublin last year.

As the issue arose head again this week, online polls suggested that could be even higher, though those click-a-button surveys are hardly scientific.

It would be good to get more widespread, representative results because the loudest voices this week were those that came out strongly against a renewed focus on dress code at the Dáil Committee on Procedures, saying it was a waste of time and money.

Senator David Norris, a man with plenty of style (orally and sartorially), did put it nicely, though, when he said: “People are not going to come in wearing a bikini. If they did, they’d be censured by the House and they would be expelled. I remember Cicciolina in the Italian parliament.”

In case that name is unfamiliar, the incorrigible porn star was elected in Italy in 1987 in an election that opened the way for a rush of blood to the head and a series of bad puns about her naked play for power. Only in Italy.

It makes all the fuss about what our TDs and senators wear seem rather tame — and trivial. All they are asked to do, under existing rules, is to dress “in a manner that reflects the dignity of the House”.

For men, that probably means a suit and tie, but where’s the guarantee of decorum in that?

Have we forgotten that men dressed in those very suits and ties have done more damage to the dignity of the House than anybody wearing shabby jeans and a T-shirt?

Pick any political scandal you care to remember and you’ll find it involved a lot of well-dressed men in suits. If, as Shakespeare said, the apparel oft proclaims the man, then it might be wise to be wary of the man in the tailored jacket and trousers.

A dress code might go some way towards making those who adhere to it presentable but, as we’ve seen too many times, it’s absolutely no guarantee of how people in high office behave.

You could argue, as Dún Laoghaire TD Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit alliance did this week, that focusing on how people dress is a distraction from the real issues. He has a point — there are so many more pressing matters.

Imagine, too, what would happen if Mr Boyd Barrett and other, shall we say more casual dressers, such as Mick Wallace, arrived in the Dáil wearing a suit. It would start to look like a fancy dress outing.

Having said that, it’s disingenuous and naïve to say that how you dress is politically neutral. Everything a person wears makes a non-verbal statement. Put that person in the public eye and what they wear becomes almost as powerful as what they say.

Some examples? What about Angela Merkel and her ‘don’t get distracted by what I wear’ trouser suits, or Theresa ‘I can be a serious leader and still wear super-cool shoes’ May, or the famous hemp suit worn in the Dáil in 2011 by Luke ‘Ming’ ‘legalise cannabis’ Flanagan.

Last September, the six Anti-Austerity Alliance TDs left no room for misinterpretation when they sat in the chamber wearing black T-shirts with the word ‘Repeal’ on them, an explicit call to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

A step too far?

Definitely, but where do you draw the line? At Mick Wallace’s Torino soccer jersey? Perhaps a flat cap ban? Or one that outlaws head carves?

There’s a good argument for a Dáil ban on emblems, badges, and clothing with slogans, but such regulations can have unexpected and unwanted consequences.

Then, there’s the issue of consistency. The ‘Repeal’ T-shirts were widely criticised, though I don’t recall anybody objecting when those creepy pins of tiny feet symbolising the unborn were worn in lapels by anti-abortion campaigners.

And if you ban emblems and badges, should that include religious emblems? What would happen if we ever elected a hijab-wearing woman to the Dail?

Sadly, that single piece of female clothing has become the flashpoint in an ongoing — and growing debate — about Muslim fundamentalism, immigration, and integration.

It’s not a waste of time to start a discussion on emblems when, two weeks ago, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies, under certain conditions, may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols.

The present debate is in the Dáil, but there’s a bigger issue bubbling under the surface in Irish society — ask any woman in Ireland who wears a headscarf if she thinks dress code is an issue and you might get an interesting answer.

In fact, ask any woman what she thinks of dress code, inside and outside parliament, and she might tell you that every time she gets dressed, she fills in a little questionnaire. Yes, it might be a sub-conscious questionnaire, but it’s there nonetheless.

Here are some of the questions: “Do I look too mumsy in this? Or perhaps too slutty, or maybe too serious or too casual, too ‘inviting’, too powerful, too threatening, too wall-flowerish, too pink, too feminine, too unfeminine, too proper, too improper, too attention-grabbing, too sporty, too unsporty?” Exhausted yet?

Yes, she is too and when she steps outside the door and into the office, the school, or the Dáil, every single person she meets is likely to answer at least one of those questions.

No wonder we look in the wardrobe and think we’ve got nothing to wear.


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