Why Suits Don’t Suit Greens
In a recent article in the New Statesman, a former Green Party candidate declared that ‘t shirts with slogans and sandals’ were not helpful to the Greens. He was described himself in the article as wearing an ‘immaculate suit’. On the same day the Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato, was photographed wearing a t shirt in the European Parliament, with the slogan ‘No to TTIP’. The Green MP Caroline Lucas made a famous appearance in a No to Page 3 t shirt in the House of Commons in 2013. And, most pointedly, the popular Green political broadcast in the run up to the May election this year was at pains to differentiate the Greens from other parties on this very issue– a quartet of white men in suits was foiled by a more informally dressed young black woman.
So who is right? Should Greens be wearing suits?
Purists might query whether or not it matters what one is wearing – the policies and principles are what counts. However clothes do matter. As sociologists and communication specialists know, clothes convey meaning – they are signs. The suit suggests business, efficiency, competence and leadership. This is why some Greens advocate its use – they believe that it will enhance their credibility and more people will vote accordingly.
There are significant problems with this approach. The suit itself is a masculine affair: women’s suits are evolving but a woman who dresses in the full jacket, trousers and tie sends out quite a different message to that of a man in the same outfit. The Greens pride themselves on gender equality and suit-wearing may put women at an inherent disadvantage.
But there is a deeper problem. The suit is primarily a sign of the middle classes. It is not something you can wear while doing manual work. Class is an issue at the centre of the Green Party and the Green movement. The party already has a middle class image, which may or may not be deserved. Its policies may be ones that benefit the most disadvantaged – environmental destruction affects the poorest the most and austerity is targeting these groups too, but having the right policies does not mean that people trust or feel an affinity with the party.
Of course, wearing jeans and a t shirt does not make you working class and does not automatically engender the trust of the working class (the opposite may be true). But accepting the status quo and donning suits is to accept and reinforce the desirability of being middle class and alongside it the principle that it is only the (male) middle classes who are really capable of leading and managing our economy and society.