Whether you like it or not, fashion is political - and particularly this week, with a style showdown of sorts in New Zealand’s Parliament.
On Tuesday Māori Party MP Rawiri Waititi, adorned with a hei-tiki, was kicked out of the house by speaker Trevor Mallard for not wearing a tie. Or more specifically, because he was “not properly dressed” - his hei-tiki apparently not adhering to Parliament’s dress code rules about business attire, and the requirement of men to wear a tie (the rules were soon changed on Wednesday night).
Waititi left the house, uttering an iconic line that neatly summarised the intersection of fashion, politics and identity in the most Kiwi way possible: “It's not about ties, it's about cultural identity mate.”
It was easy to dismiss it as a silly distraction about silly clothes (“I don’t think New Zealanders care about ties,” said prime minister Jacinda Ardern). But the situation was not about ties, it was symbolic of a bigger conversation that most local politicians seem to be afraid of: the intersection of fashion, power, culture, identity, colonialism and frankly, archaic fashion and dress code “rules”.
To some it may seem heavy handed symbolism, but in this case the traditional tie is colonialism; referenced by Waititi in his maiden speech last year when he quoted Te Whakatōhea tīpuna Mokomoko: “tangohia te taura i taku kakī, kia waiata au i taku waiata" [Take the noose from around my neck so that I may sing my song.]
For Waititi, who says he was wearing “Māori business attire” (and who looked a lot smarter than many other politicians in his hei tiki, pōtae and suit; he and Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer are both naturally stylish), it was about the right to represent his people in the attire he chose to wear “and that our mana motuhake is felt and asserted in this place, in parliament”.
"It has everything to do with the right of Māori to be Māori, whether in Parliament or in the pub," he later shared.
Below, Bobby Campbell Luke (Ngāti Ruanui), an incredibly talented fashion designer currently in the final year of his PhD, reflects on the wider meaning of the whole tie saga - and why flexing a right to cultural agency is more than just a fashion accessory.
With all that is happening in the world, fruitful debate and protest is a form of voicing a larger conversation of imbued prejudice and adherence to colonial codes, particularly within our political arena. Re-affirming the importance of valuing a sartorial gaze, Te Paati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi did exactly that: not by making political statement, but by defending his right.
“It's not about ties, it's about cultural identity mate,” he said while exiting the chamber after being kicked out by speaker Trevor Mallard.
Flexing our right to cultural agency is more than a fashion accessory. It is not only classified by its physical materiality but, more importantly, by its spiritual significance. Taonga Tuku Iho - ‘Hua a te whenua, me te Moana’ - our gift from the land and the sea’.
Taonga Tuku Iho is an expression of validation, a right to hold significant mana, mauri (the metaphysical relationship with ‘things, treasures and the environment’), an entity to which exercises our cultural beliefs, significant histories, and our connection to the land. Taonga are a gift from the land and from the sea, handed from one’s tūpuna (ancestor) to another.
The necktie was described by Mr Waititi as a “colonial noose” in his maiden speech last year, when he removed his traditional European necktie and adorned himself with his taonga in an expression of deconstructing colonial power - or the "Pākehā power" mentioned by Mr Waititi in a statement on Wednesday.
The necktie is, historically, a pompous accessory for French nobility, founded on colonial power and ‘class’. I would agree that our ‘Taonga Tuku Iho’ is a far cry from being compatible with the ‘colonial noose’.
Māori have been under a cloud of colonial pressure to assimilate to Pākehā constitutions for generations. Some would say assimilating to the mainstream would reap the benefits of some Pākehā power. As Tame Iti mentioned in a recent interview with Moana Maniapoto, “we are a colonised culture” - which is the one thing we cannot deny, our processes of looking into a future that suggests decolonial beginnings are expressed now and today.
Times have become more woke in expressing our identity, and with recent political movements, a new wave of cultural expressions that centralises indigenous and young voices gestures towards decolonial futures.
Clothing and adornment enact the ability to project cultural sovereignty in understanding someone’s place in the world. With political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Ihumātao, 2021 should be a time of enabling cultural world views; not preventing it.
As a parliament known for its liberal, progressive thinking on a global level, we are quickly reminded of the work needed to be done - and the importance of exercising the right to express your cultural sovereignty.
“I will adorn myself with the treasures of my ancestors and remove the colonial noose around my neck so that I may sing my song.” – Rawiri Waititi