Conversation Series: What Does A Dress Code Say?

February 12, 2021

If you go to a school that has a dress code, you know that there are rules for what you can and can’t wear. Depending on the school, the rules may be that students can’t wear jeans, or that students must wear a specific uniform. Now, what happens when you break your school’s dress code. Are you given detention? Asked to go home and change? Given a warning? Now, what if you feel that the dress code at your school is outdated and even offensive? Hold that thought as we discuss dress codes in the world of government.

In the United States, Congress members and other professionals entering the House chambers are required to dress in business attire. For men, that usually means a suit and tie, and for women, that usually means a long-sleeved blouse along with a suit, or a dress with long sleeves, and of course, closed-toe shoes. However, recently, women have been defying and even questioning these old dress code rules. Why shouldn’t a woman be able to wear a sleeveless dress in the House chamber if it’s a scorching 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside?

New Zealand House of Representatives Debating Chamber
Andy Palmer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Wahanui Reihana Te Huatare carrying a mere and wearing a hei-tiki made of pounamu. By Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) – http://www.lindaueronline.co.nz/maori-portraits/wahanui-reihana-te-huatare, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19798030

Recently, the enforced dress code in the New Zealand parliament became a hot topic of debate when Rawiri Waititi, the co-leader of the Māori party, decided to wear a greenstone necklace (business attire of the Māori people) instead of a tie to the parliament’s debating chamber. Why? Because Waititi believes that a tie represents colonial oppression of indigenous people. Waititi was told by Trevor Mallard, the Speaker of the House, that he would not be called upon to speak because he wasn’t wearing a tie. When Waititi continued to speak, Mallard kicked him out of the chamber. After all, rules are rules. But should men have to wear a tie in the debating chamber of parliament if the tie is a symbol of oppression to their culture? Furthermore, should rules be set in stone? Some say yes while others say no.

Update: The New Zealand parliament has since relaxed the rule that men have to wear ties when speaking in the House chamber. Ties are no longer considered “appropriate business attire” and men entering the chamber will no longer have to wear one.

Discussion: What do you think? Should the New Zealand parliament change the dress code requirements? Why or why not?