Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mary Louise Kearney: The Prime Minister‘s Cloak

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Secondly, the right balance of high office and personal ancestry  was assured by the presence and apparel of the Governor-General.
  3. 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.


Unknown said...

"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.

Don said...

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.

Robert Arthur said...

Waititi would have conveyed NZ trajectory and developments more clearly.

Murray Reid said...

Is that the author under the silly black floppy hat at the start of the article?

Anonymous said...

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