JENI O’DOWD: Nit-picking fashion police prove just how out of touch Australians are

Jeni O’Dowd
The Nightly
4 Min Read
JENI O’DOWD: A woman wore a nice dress to support her husband in his big moment. Real scintillating stuff.
JENI O’DOWD: A woman wore a nice dress to support her husband in his big moment. Real scintillating stuff. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Imagine the media coverage if Australia ever had a female treasurer. The scrutiny at budget time would be relentless, nit-picking her appearance and questioning her choices as if they overshadowed her professional capabilities.

This relentless focus on women’s looks is a disservice, not only to those subjected to it but to society as a whole, revealing a deeper, systemic issue of gender bias.

Women in the public eye are frequently diminished to their appearance, a standard rarely, if ever, applied to men. It perpetuates the harmful notion that a woman’s worth is tied to her appearance rather than her abilities, intellect, and contributions.

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Take the recent example of Laura Chalmers, the wife of Treasurer Jim Chalmers. Of all the thousands of words written about the 2024 Federal Budget, the most puerile — and sexist — was the criticism of Laura for choosing to wear a Carla Zampatti dress when the Budget was handed down.

She is not a politician. Why can’t she wear what she wants — and who cares if her outfit was by a designer? Yep, it was costly. But how do we know she didn’t buy it second-hand, save up all year for it, or get it as a present? And who really cares?

I don’t, but I do care about the inference she should wear something stamped Husband/Party Approved. Or even worse, the inference that she is just an extension of her politician hubby and needs to “read the political climate”.

I thought she looked beautiful. And if I knew the media would analyse me during my husband’s big moment, I would choose a dress like that, too — whatever it cost.

Laura, a journalist, would undoubtedly have been conscious of the overt criticism of female politicians and the wives of male politicians.

Jodie Haydon, Laura Chalmers and kids Leo and Annabel as Treasurer Jim Chalmers hands down the 2024-25 Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Judging by the reaction to the ensemble, the Carla Zampatti ensemble that Laura Chalmers chose to wear to support her husband’s Budget address was radioactive yellow, not butter yellow. Credit: Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

In 2014, some sections of the media were in an uproar when the then-treasurer Joe Hockey’s partner, Melissa Babbage, also decided to wear a Carla Zampatti dress when he, too, handed down the budget. Melissa is a self-made millionaire and a former senior executive at Deutsche Bank. I reckon she could afford a whole wardrobe of Carla Zampatti if she wanted.

I have no problem with the widespread criticism of the infamous photo of Joe Hockey and then finance minister Mathias Cormann smoking cigars ahead of a tough budget. They were both politicians, and smoking cigars showed breathtaking arrogance.

But even though wives are not politicians, they are held to the same standards. Have you ever read criticism of what a man chooses to wear? The only male MP I can think of is the former PM Paul Keating, who was called out for wearing luxury Italian Zegna suits while all Australians were told to tighten their belts. Or maybe some unfortunate MP who wore the same coloured tie two days in a row. You get the picture.

A few years ago, a pre-election Anthony Albanese lost 18kg, but the media coverage focused on how great he looked, with headlines such as From Unfit To Fabulous! He even did a photo shoot for the Australian Women’s Weekly wearing tight pants..

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop reacts ahead of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg handing down his first Federal Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, 2 April 2019. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Former foreign minister Julie Bishop wore a sparkling blue dress for the delivery of the 2019 Budget. Credit: Lukas Coch/AAP Imgae

Seriously? For looking good in an evening dress? And, for the record, this was when the then-government announced Australia’s finances were finally back in the black — but let’s forget the real news and instead focus on a blue sequinned dress.

Remember Dr Kerry Chant, NSW’s chief medical officer, who stood alongside former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian for a daily press conference during COVID-19?

Dr Chant, a public servant not used to the spotlight, faced a hostile media pack daily and was criticised in the mainstream media for having broken glasses and using a face mask to wipe her eyes.

Even worse, her physical appearance was analysed across multiple social media platforms at the time. One media commentator noted Reddit users saying she “is looking more and more like a person in an abusive relationship”, with Twitter users mocking her with cruel memes.

With a track record as impressive as Dr Chant’s — in 2015, she was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for outstanding public service to population health; was named the NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year in 2021, and in 2022, was awarded an Order of Australia in the 2022 Queen’s Birthday Honours — this judgment was just breathtaking.

New South Whales' Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant continues speaking at the COVID-19 presser after her glasses broke
For all the criticism, Dr Chant did not let broken glasses deter her from delivering critical case updates during a Covid-19 presser. Credit: 7NEWS/7NEWS

This constant chatter about women’s appearance isn’t just confined to politicians, their wives, and public servants. It’s any woman in the spotlight — they’ve put on weight, lost weight, changed their hair colour. Real scintillating stuff.

A friend of mine did a stint of news reading the 6pm news in Sydney and told me how shocked she was at the number of people who rang in to complain about not only what she was wearing but the colour of her lipstick.

Laura Chalmers wearing a designer dress should be a non-issue. Her choice should be seen for what it is: a personal decision that has no bearing on her husband’s professional responsibilities or the nation’s economic health. Yet, the fact that it became a talking point highlights how far we still have to go in achieving gender equality.

This preoccupation with women’s appearances detracts from the real issues. It distracts from the substantive conversations we should have about policy, governance, and societal progress. It’s time to shift the narrative and focus on what truly matters.

Instead of critiquing Laura Chalmers for her dress, let’s critique the Budget’s impact on health care, education, and the economy. Let’s celebrate the achievements of women like Dr Kerry Chant for their contributions, not their fashion choices.

Please, leave fashion policing behind.


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