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Humble cardigan given a hug

Date

Markus Mannheim

Michelle Obama regularly wears the maligned garment.

Michelle Obama regularly wears the maligned garment. Photo: AFP

Could Michelle Obama save bureaucrats from the national sport of public service-bashing?

A cultural studies academic suggests that, simply by wearing cardigans, America's first lady is inverting a stereotype that has dogged public servants for decades.

The University of Sydney's Prudence Black will address a Melbourne conference today on the history of the garment, as worn by government workers.

She traced the cardigan's 19th-century origins, as clothing worn by manual workers – "tradespeople, fishermen, in fact anything but a desk job" – to its ubiquity among bureaucrats in the 1960s.

Today, the word cardigan remains a pejorative term used to describe an ineffectual public servant. And wearing one can connote a laidback work ethic, stemming from the outdated notion that a public servant has a job for life.

"There's this idea that having the security of a government job allows a relaxed manner in regard to dress codes, and this in turn allows an informality of dress," Dr Black said.

"If you're characterised through the stereotype of cardigan- wearing, it can mean you're out of date or stuck in your ways."

However, some attitudes are shifting, thanks in part to Ms Obama, who regularly wears the maligned garment at high-profile events.

She even wore a black cardigan on the night her husband won the 2008 presidential election.

Dr Black said: "I love the way she wears them: she pulls the sleeves up, as though she's saying: 'I'm ready to work.'

"There's a physicality about the way she wears it; it's no-nonsense and practical. You can't imagine Julia Gillard or Margaret Thatcher in a cardigan."

Dr Black said the cardigan was the worker's friend: practical, as it could be thrown in a bag or over the back of a chair, or worn after work to "dress up" an outfit.

But she noted a recent trend in some workplaces, such as law firms in Sydney and Melbourne, towards more conservative dress and grooming codes. Even Canberrans know not to wear a cardigan in Parliament.

However, Dr Black hoped public servants' love of the garment will not succumb to the weight of an old, negative stereotype.

"That would be such a shame, because cardigans are so comfortable and so useful."

Dr Black will speak today at the Institute of Public Administration Australia's conference, which, among weightier issues, is exploring workplace fashion.

11 comments so far

  • There's nothing like a good cardigan.

    Commenter
    sally
    Location
    northcote
    Date and time
    September 19, 2012, 7:28PM
    • Too right Sally. It's a great, practical garment, it can mean the difference between being comfortable or sneezing one's head off when working within a cooled indoor environment when you can't access the controls.

      Commenter
      trace
      Location
      mildura
      Date and time
      September 19, 2012, 8:35PM
      • Arrggh, my bug bear freezing air con in summer and stinking hot in winter. Why can't we return to the days of more natural air temps rather than the opposite extremes.
        As for the humble cardi, love em and didn't realize they have been so maligned.
        Not mentioned was their association with academia also. Professor, librarian etc. And whatever Michelle wears, she looks hot!

        Commenter
        Buttons
        Date and time
        September 20, 2012, 9:42AM
    • So an academic has plenty of time on their hands to write about a socially important issue such as wearing cardies by 'lazy' bureaucrats?? Does the good Doktor Black wear one as well? Probably!! LOL!

      Commenter
      LeathaPatches
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 6:39AM
      • What? Cardigans have been back for years. Take a wander through Newtown in Sydney or Fitzroy in Melbourne sometime.

        Commenter
        Hipster
        Date and time
        September 20, 2012, 7:47AM
        • I've never heard anyone refer to public servants as cardigans (maybe it's the case, but never heard it), but how proud a strong intelligent woman like Michelle Obama must be to finally get to contribute to the world through her fashion choices. Please tell me more! What can her handbag do for climate change? Do her shoes cure HIV? And that bracelet!!! Childhood hunger be gone!

          Commenter
          Aaron
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          September 20, 2012, 8:14AM
          • I wear a cardigan at work much more comfortable than my suit jacket, a good cardigan can cost just as much or more than a suit jacket. Most designers have cardigans in their range.

            Commenter
            Sam
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            September 20, 2012, 8:43AM
            • As a proud cardigan wearing Canberra public servant I'm stunned to read this. Who knew????

              Commenter
              Helen13
              Date and time
              September 20, 2012, 9:25AM
              • Cardigans were in fact invented by Lord Cardigan, worn during the Crimean war.

                Commenter
                Wilful
                Date and time
                September 20, 2012, 9:55AM
                • I'm a public servant and I work in a library and I reckon cardigans rock! I've always worn them and it's good to see fashion has finally caught up with me.

                  Commenter
                  Library Lady
                  Date and time
                  September 20, 2012, 12:12PM

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