3 min

Dress code in the legislature

Would I be expected to slip into a string of pearls?

 My novel The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky is set in Toronto’s Jewish community in the 1930s, so it’s not surprising that I speak to a lot of seniors groups. They enjoy my book, its characters and the time period. They like me. I make them laugh and they get to reminisce. But invariably, it’s impossible to get through the event without someone commenting on my clothing or hair.

Recently I read at a Jewish old folks home. After the reading, I was invited to join the audience for tea and cookies. At a large round table, I sat beside two elderly men who kibitzed with me. 

Suddenly, one of the women sitting across the table shouted, “Why is your hair so short!? You have such a pretty face.”

“And why are you wearing a man’s shirt!?” the woman beside her scolded.

What do you say to that?

We all wear uniforms. I have one:  jeans, black t-shirt. Depending on the situation, a leather jacket or sport coat. I wear my wallet on a chain stuffed into my back pocket. I’m fond of baseball caps. I have many. 

I’ve never been invited to BC’s legislative chamber but if I were, could I get in dressed as myself? Or would I have to remove my ball cap? What about my leather jacket? Would I be expected to slip into a string of white pearls?

In early March, in an historic move, Vancouver Centre MLA Spencer Herbert invited Mr and Ms Gay Vancouver XXIX and Emperor and Empress V of Surrey to the legislative chamber to be acknowledged for their community work.

Despite the invitation and the honour, our dignitaries were not allowed to wear their crowns or sashes in the gallery. Apparently they would be an affront to the dignity of the legislature. Guess there’s only room for one queen in the house. And she lives in England.

Our queens took the order in stride and left their sashes, tiara and crown in the hotel, but they should not have had to.

Once you’re inside the House it’s not hard to notice that all the MLAs have a uniform. The men are in dark suits, white shirts and alarmingly similar ties. Not one woman wears a tie. Is that a rule? Or merely a preference?

In place of a tie, the women wear broaches, necklaces or classic “Barbara Bush” pearls.

What would happen to an MLA who broke ranks and ventured outside this gender-based uniform?

What if Spencer Herbert were to wake up one morning and toss on a Michelle Obama-inspired sleeveless green dress, with matching shoes and handbag? Would he be prevented from taking his seat in the House?

Or if Vancouver-Fairview MLA Jenn McGinn felt like wearing a tailored suit, crisp white shirt, and blue silk tie? Would wearing the tie tip her over the edge of acceptable decorum?

Isn’t it time to get rid of gender-based fashion rules?

When former federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was up against Conservative leader Stephen Harper last fall, he was criticized for not looking “prime ministerial enough.” Why? Because he’s thin? Wears glasses? Speaks softly? Or maybe what they were really saying is that Mr Dion is a bit effeminate, as if a sensitive, gentle man cannot lead.

Which gives pause to wonder how Pierre Elliot Trudeau ever made it to the Prime Minister’s chair. I guess that was a kinder gentler time. I guess wearing pink and being cultured and fashionable could pass for prime ministerial in the 1970s.

In today’s climate, what does it take to look prime ministerial? I guess you have to be a man. A big butch man, dressed in a suit identical to the other men. With plastic hair. Like a Ken doll.

Perhaps that’s why we have had only the slightest representation of women in positions of political power.

Kim Campbell, a Conservative Member of Parliament during Brian Mulroney’s reign, became Canada’s first and to date only female prime minister when she succeeded Mulroney in 1993. She was defeated five months later by Liberal leader Jean Chrétien.

Rita Johnson was the first and to date only female premier of BC, also for a rather short time, from July to October 1991 when NDP Mike Harcourt defeated her in a provincial election.

So far, Vancouver has never had a woman as mayor.

The BC Legislature honours the section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that states that no person shall be discriminated against because of their religion. Headgear is allowed if it’s a religious symbol such as a turban or yarmulke. But what about the part of the Charter that says no person shall be discriminated against because of sex or sexual orientation?

Perhaps it is time to look at how “norms” of decorum based on gender are discriminatory. How unspoken uniforms, like the black power suit and tie, create an imbalanced playing field.

Perhaps more women should start wearing the power suit, complete with tie.

Perhaps men like Stéphane Dion should go all the way and wear a simple green pantsuit with a broach?

If clothing is not gender-based, maybe one day an Empress will be able to enter our political house of business with her outfit intact. And I will be able to speak to seniors groups without worrying which side of the shirt my buttons are fastened on.