Did the New Zealand Prime Minister send a clear message to the world on Coronation Day? And did New Zealanders grasp this?
“The medium is the message” is the famous catch phrase of the Canadian Communication theorist, Marshall McCluhan, and the title of the first chapter in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He contended that how a message is delivered strongly affects its impact and therefore transmission should be the main focus of attention.
Two channels of delivery are of paramount importance: clothes and occasion. Their interplay is the subject of Caroline Weber’s award-winning book, Queen of Fashion. What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, which scrutinizes the politics of public image and costume.Jacinda Ardern, a Communications graduate, became an undisputed expert on appearance and message during her premiership. Her keen awareness of how to use clothing to create empathy with particular groups was demonstrated during the Christchurch terror attack – including the ultimate sign of cult power, namely when a dress code or item is widely copied by the general public.
Against this background, the Prime Minister’s outfit for the coronation of King Charles III merits comment. So, why is clothing politically important and capable of generating messages, whether clear or deliberately obscure (noting the that several MPs struggle to explain co-governance with any clarity)? The expression “clothes maketh the man” has been attributed to Mark Twain . But in fact, this author was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Polonius says “apparel oft proclaims the man.“ This suggests a deeper link where garments serve to indicate character and intention. This view is documented by fact. Men - especially political leaders - in expensive suits are likely to command confidence, women in elegant dresses are deemed goddesses, IT geeks clad in a uniform of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers attain rock star status. For special occasions, people go all-out to strike the right balance between being “dressed to kill” (and perhaps stealing the limelight from rivals ) and choosing overly casual attire which might offend their hosts and confirm their own cluelessness about protocol. Some never hit the right note and so even A-listers with a D-grade fashion sense can be brutally relegated to the ignominious “ worst dressed list” for their unfortunate choices.
Moreover, certain garments become legendary and instantly recognized - random examples being Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours in the Book of Genesis and Lady Diana Spencer’s 1981 wedding dress designed by David Emanuel to resemble a gigantic meringue. Sartorial transformation is an indispensable component not only of social advancement (think Pygmalion) but also of disguise (The Scarlet Pimpernel). Clothes can certainly convey opinions and intent more strongly than words.
Choosing the right outfit becomes a real challenge when attending star-studded global events where the fashionistas are out in force. Celebrities of all stripes – royalty, politics, show business and sport - mingle on the world stage watched by huge media audiences who dissect every detail of their appearance. Like gladiators in Ancient Rome, they receive the thumbs up or down from the demanding public. Success leads to increased face recognition and often major financial gain but failure means being consigned to the rubbish heap of the badly dressed. The Devil Wears Prada documents the cut throat world of fashion where the A-list relies on stellar wardrobes to define personality and status .
And so to the political nature of apparel. The recent coronation of Charles III, watched by some 400 million TV viewers worldwide and countless social media followers, offered endless examples of dress code power, as well as a unique occasion to pass one’s political message. From the main royal actors to the ranks of handpicked guests, everyone understood this opportunity and planned their outfits accordingly. Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons and possible future Prime Minister went for a vaguely medieval look but made sure to wear comfortable shoes to cope with holding the heavy sword of state for two hours. Ritchie McCaw and Chris Luxon opted for morning suits as did several of the former British Prime Ministers and American music royalty, Lionel Ritchie; Jill Biden took care to dress in Democrat blue; Princess Anne’s hat featured a large bobbing red feather which prevented a clear view of Prince Harry in his smart Dior suit .
Regarding protocol , the regalia of the principal Royals sent a clear message to their peers: crowns were worn only by the King (the King Edward model from 1661) and the Queen (the Queen Mary remodeled version without the famous koh-i-noor diamond to avoid possible diplomatic conflict with India). The Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh did not wear formal tiaras (despite the vast stock available). The strict dress code for guests was morning or lounge suits, military uniform, formal day or national dress.
The New Zealand Delegation entered Westminster Abbey led by Dame Cindy Kiro whose korowai reflected her high office and her ancestry. Following was the Right Honourable Christopher Hipkins wearing a lounge suit and a korowai. At last count, the Prime Minister has not declared Maori lineage - though this seems to be a flexible detail today. Was his apparel a clear message to the global audience and especially to New Zealand tele viewers?
The coronation offered a unique occasion for political messaging for three reasons:
- First, who was the Prime Minister actually representing ? Presumably, he wished to convey that he was the leader of New Zealand in its entire diversity. In this case, he might have considered wearing his lounge suit - unadorned by specific insignia. After all, according to Stats NZ, the 2018 Census data recorded over 160 ethnic groups with more than 100 people living in New Zealand , thus documenting the truly multicultural composition of the population.
- Secondly, the right balance of high office and personal ancestry was assured by the presence and apparel of the Governor-General.
- Thirdly, and most unfortunately, this apparel could lead to the conclusion that that New Zealand has already - somehow and at some time - officially moved from democracy to ethnocracy. That is to say, the superior status of one group of the population has already been officially decided. Onlookers might even assume New Zealand had held a formal referendum which is the normal legal and constitutional way to decide such critical matters.
Anthony Albanese and Justin Trudeau, both supporting special privilege for specific groups of the Australian and Canadian populations to advance the UNDRIP Declaration , wore business suits but without any distinctive regalia. Mr Hipkins gave a different message with his korowai which is a ceremonial garment of exceptional cultural status and significance . Probably the Maori caucus and John Tamihere fully approved of his garb and may have even told him what to wear. But all other New Zealanders were given serious food for thought.
The NZ Prime Minister passed his message to the whole world. Since 2020, the Labour Party has been rapidly transforming New Zealand’s governance and replacing its democracy. The Te Pati Maori party has already stated its stringent demands to complete this process from 2023 onwards with full support from the radical Greens. All are determined to achieve this objective without any clear and open legal consultation process with the people of New Zealand as required by law. In so doing, they have deeply insulted many citizens in the 83% group who are fully committed to equality - and who now should wake up very fast as their democracy is threatened. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s cloak spoke volumes.
Dr Kearney, a dual NZ and French citizen, was a UN civil servant in senior and director posts for 30 years. This is a personal comment.
"Princess Anne’s hat featured a large bobbing red feather which prevented a clear view of Prince Harry in his smart Dior suit" - I have heard (allegedly) that this was done on purpose, by The Royal Family, to reduce the exposure of "Harry" on TV, that would have/could have/ might have - enhanced His & that "Wonderful Wife" of His, constant exposure to the World, that might have/could have/ would have - added further financial gain, to pay for that (allegedly) very expensive Home in Montecito, in The State of California, United States of America - or was to to add to their collective expense of "flying everywhere"?? - when they "do follow the Green pathway of lowering World carbon issues"???!!.
For such an excellent article, it is a pity that the rest of NZ will not get to read this.
Brilliant article. The PM is representing a House of Parliament that has become a circus complete with clowns in cowboy hats and painted faces. The idea of appropriate dress has been superseded with freedom of expression suitable to a pre-schoolers playground. The korowai resembles the angel wings children love pinning on their backs. Some women have blue dribble dripping down their chins. Unlike the rest of us Maori prayers and hymns are often imposed on a secular House. All of these things have a place in New Zealand society but not in gatherings that should be representative of the unity of the spectrum of cultures we otherwise enjoy.
Waititi would have conveyed NZ trajectory and developments more clearly.
Is that the author under the silly black floppy hat at the start of the article?
I was in Europe at the time of the Coronation and watched several commentaries including Canadian, BBC, Indian TV. No mention of Chris Hipkins as he walked into the Abbey. I don't think anyone even knew who he was, let alone whether he wore a Maori cloaak
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