Beyond the suit and tie

Public service fashion in Canberra is not just about suits, writes Claire Low.

Some time ago on a Melbourne holiday, I was in a casino shoe shop. Someone told me the bouncers of Melburnian nightclubs cared deeply about footwear choices and the wrong shoe would not get me into the best of the watering holes.

This is already pretty silly because do we really think bouncers are looking down, rather than up? A mate of mine used to get into clubs by sauntering up to the head of the queue and saying, ''All my friends look like me.'' I am certain she never presented her feet for inspection.

Anyway, I was looking for shoes, the kind that could get me in anywhere. The purveyor of footwear said, ''You're from Canberra? You probably wear suits all the time.''

I didn't and perhaps you do, but you quite possibly don't. The thing was, it was a stale old line, spoken with the kind of prejudice of someone who has us all pegged as politicians and public servants - the idea that Canberra is a uniformly bland city populated with uniformly bland people. The land that style forgot.

We will probably always struggle against this stereotype, just as Sydneysiders must live up to the bronzed, muscular, beach-babe ideal and Melburnians seem to have an allergy to clothing themselves in anything that isn't black.

Canberrans can be thought of as brainy. Canberrans can be thought of as moneyed. But will we ever, en masse, be presumed chic?


Well, welcome to Canberra, noobs. Style literacy is high and, guess what? We are as trend-savvy as anyone.

Canberra has produced style luminaries of a kind. We can claim Angela Menz: a woman who has stood on stage as a national Fashions on the Field champion. The designer and milliner and all-round sweetheart is now working with footwear.

Canberra has produced a Project Runway Australia winner: the wonderful Anthony Capon, sartorially unafraid and happy to champion skirts and dresses on men. The kind of bloke whose design talent is bleedingly obvious when his creations go parading down the runway at Australian Fashion Week.

Canberra can also claim Hollywood darling Mia Wasikowska, a pale young beauty on Vanity Fair covers, who is spotted in the maternal arms of Nicole Kidman. Wasikowska's ethereal visage has appeared in monumental scale in massive advertisements for Miu Miu, with black velvet and red plexiglass cameos around her white throat.

And, of course, we have the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, a woman so immaculately tailored, well-shod and well-coiffed you could hardly ask for a more regal substitute for the Queen.

Please do not presume this journalist to be some sort of anti-suit person. I love suits when deployed well. Some of my memories of suits in Canberra are of chief minister Katy Gallagher in black-trimmed cream and neat blonde bob, marching about the Hyatt on her way to her latest event, and of Jon Stanhope in tailored, pinstripe navy. This was at the then-fledgling Arboretum and the day was one of his last official duties as chief minister. There were tears in his eyes - not, it turns out, from the emotion of concluding his time as a local leader, but from the vicious, cold wind. We sat in his car so the sound of his voice could be heard above the howl of the outdoors. Just me, Stanhope and the quiet dignity of a very smart suit.

When you come to Canberra, grads, dress like you mean it. It doesn't have to be a suit. It doesn't have to be bland. You don't have to have that pass with your mugshot on it flapping about your neck.

My sartorial memories of my time here will include Victoria Novak with one of her exquisite pieces of millinery in her hair, posing under a lace parasol next to an equine training pool at Thoroughbred Park. I'll remember those Civic goth kids who slump near the Matthew Harding silver cushion in Garema Place, all mesh and grommets and eyeliner. I'll remember the thin and tanned pretty pieces of flesh in their backless, strapless things, all flailing about to club music at 3am. Yes, they looked fantastic in their own way. I'll remember poking through the racks of Hugo Boss and sass & bide and the heap of vintage treasures at the back of Landspeed Records. I'll remember sifting through the castoffs of the Fyshwick Salvos in pursuit of outfits that cost less than $10 and coming up with something suitably Vivienne Westwood: a kilt for $1, and a neat little top. I'll remember the CIT fashion graduate end-of-year parades and the way I always wanted those kids to do so damned well, to be the next Alexander McQueen or better.

Welcome to Canberra, noobs. Dress accordingly.