STEEDMAN960822NEWS EXTRA PIC JOHN LAMB  / PETER STEEDMAN INTERVIEW

What dress code? Hard-rocking former federal MP Pete Steedman. Photo: John Lamb

Noel Towell had an amusing story today about some Tax Office workers whose office fashion was too titillating. It reminded me of this (somewhat extreme) column I wrote a couple of years ago:

Three decades ago, a Victorian lefty, Labor MP Pete Steedman, rocked up to the House of Representatives wearing jeans and a leather jacket. He did so often during his short stint in federal politics, sometimes opting instead for a colourful cardigan. He showed there was no inherent need to wear the defacto uniform of the Parliament: an expensive, tailored suit.

Suits are nothing more than symbols: empty expressions of wealth and authority. 

Yet Steedman has long since left the House, and his cavalier dress sense went with him. These days, I doubt more than a handful of parliamentarians would wear suits, or other outfits, worth less than $1000.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten responds after Leader of the House Christopher Pyne moves a motion relating to the Craig Thomson matter in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 25 February 2014.
Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The House of Representatives: a sea of colour and individual expression. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

I don't blame politicians; more than most people, their job compels them to "fit in". What I struggle with is why most professionals - indeed, pretty much all white-collar workers - dress formally. They wear suits to job interviews, when meeting clients and very often for no reason at all. That most ridiculous of contrivances, the necktie, remains commonplace. I've worked with women who boast about fashion shopping sprees, and who avoid wearing the same clothes or shoes in the same week. I know public servants who never meet the public yet still dress to the nines every day, if only for the ''pleasure'' of themselves and their colleagues.

Why do we do it? There are endless industries pumping out excuses for this vanity (let's not shy away from its name). The purveyors of clothing, accessories and styling products spend up big to associate their goods with success; media outlets, too, in covering fashion in detail, implicitly accept its importance. And many of us embrace the resulting narratives without critically analysing them. "It's disrespectful to others to 'dress down'." "Nice clothes make me feel good about myself." "I work hard; I deserve this indulgence." "I'm single and I won't find a partner if I dress poorly." "I'm ambitious so I need to 'play the game' at work."

Sometimes, it's pragmatic to conform to social norms. Fashion-based prejudice is a pandemic; it can be simpler to meet the expectations of others, however superficial.

It certainly doesn't help when workplace leaders take pride in their shallowness. When Attorney-General's Department chief Robert Cornall retired in 2008, he devoted part of his valedictory speech to, of all things, advice on clothing. "I have always tried to look, sound and act like a secretary. Some people may think that is paying attention to appearance over substance but I disagree."

Cornall spoke of a man who had once sat near him in a plane's business-class section. "I was, naturally, wearing a business suit but he was in jeans, T-shirt, open plaid shirt with the sleeves partly rolled up, Birkenstock sandals and socks decorated with cartoon character Yosemite Sam and the word 'cute'. I thought to myself: 'This guy could be a software multimillionaire for all I know, but one thing's for sure: dressed like that, he will never be secretary of a department of state.' "

But as pompously self-indulgent as Cornall's comments seem to me, I know many other public servants would share his views. The many irrational cultural beliefs that are attached to clothing cannot be dismissed; they are real and they affect our interactions with others. People will assume a shabby dresser is a shabby thinker, or that an idiosyncratic fashion sense indicates an unwillingness to be a team player. They'll equate an expensive suit to success, or a tidy appearance with an organised approach to work.

Yet suits are nothing more than symbols: empty expressions of wealth and authority. They were first worn by middle-class British dandies trying to pass themselves off as aristocrats, and I'd argue that nothing's changed in the 200 years since. Every time we don a suit, we clad ourselves in a veneer of "respectability" (it's not as though we do it for comfort). And, in doing so, we tell ourselves, and everyone around us, that what we wear is what matters, not what we think, say or do.

(Yes, that's me in a suit in the photo up top: I don't know what came over me that day.)