By Fran Barclay*
Last week, Newsroom ran a story on the cultural demise of the country’s capital, starting with one of its most derided fashion legacies: Walk shorts.
Typically combined with knee-length socks, short-sleeved shirts and office footwear, the walk shorts look was adopted by the city’s bureaucratic population throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. At least, it was by men.
The Public Service Association fought valiantly for men to win the freedom to wear shorts to the workplace – a freedom that many may take for granted nowadays. But the women, it seems, were left to swelter in silence.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that ‘city shorts’ were popularised by shoulder-padded women at work.
Work shorts have long since fallen out of fashion, relegated to the archives of Wellington’s sartorial history. To some, they represent the bland, bureaucratic reputation with which the city has been branded. But to me, they tell a different story. And I think it’s time to bring them back – this time, for everyone.
As a genderqueer professional, what to wear to work has been a source of existential dread. Dressing to present myself in a way that is true to my experience of gender, while still conforming to an office etiquette, is not a simple task.
In European cultures, caring about clothing has long been thought of as a (pejoratively) feminine pastime. In Aotearoa New Zealand, many have made conscious efforts to avoid drawing attention to their dress. But attending to our clothes can be a powerful force for change in society. Whether we are pushing back at patriarchal values, colonisation, exploitation or environmental harm, fashioning an outfit with consideration of its deeper meaning is far from frivolous or vain.
Over the past few decades, scholars and curators have started to unveil the cultural and political significance of our garments. What we wear reveals a wealth of information about the age in which we live. Throughout history, activists for human rights have utilised clothing as a mode of rebellion, resistance, and solidarity. At the same time, dress laws have been – and continue to be – used to oppress and suppress. It’s easy to dismiss a style that has gone out of fashion, but these outfits tell us so much more about our heritage than we might like to think.
As Jonathan Milne points out in his Newsroom article, the 2022 NielsenIQ Quality of Life Survey posed a question that speaks to the power of clothes in contemporary society. When asked if they feel comfortable dressing in a way that expresses their identity in public, 80 percent of Wellington respondents said ‘yes’. That testifies to a city that has come a long way since women were barred from wearing shorts (among other items).
But threats to the rainbow community are real, and dressing in a way that expresses our diversity can pose a risk to our personal safety. We are still met with overt discrimination as well as unconscious bias behind the scenes. So for many of us, work remains a challenging arena where the pressure of respectability can hamper our self-actualisation. The stakes are high when your pay cheque and promotions are involved.
After centuries of deeply gendered clothing conventions, shorts have now become a rare item of gender-neutrality. They’re breathable, bikeable, quick-dry and windproof – all essential qualities for a Wellington wardrobe. As a city that has come so far in advancing gender rights since the 1960’s, I think we’re ready to resurrect a garment that was once a symbol of ingrained discrimination but can now free the knees of all gender identities.
That’s why I’m adopting walk shorts in my summer work wardrobe – a pair I found, quite fittingly, in the Wellington tip. Some may argue that is where they belong. Others happily pay for anything vintage. For me, this is part of a wider effort to better understand the history of our clothing, and to reclaim items that have the power to advance gender diversity.
*Fran Barclay is a writer and activist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara.