Suits and Sans Culottes in the long hot summer

Pity us, dear reader. The G20 gathering of world leaders is being held in Brisbane this weekend, so for the last week we’ve been in security lockdown: public transport disrupted, helicopters buzzing overhead, parts of the city barricaded off. It is currently illegal to carry eggs, tomatoes or reptiles in the lockdown area – which is hard luck for the many thousands who live in the inner city, though possibly good luck for reptiles. There has been a sort of bipolar anxiety. On the one hand, everyone has been avoiding the lockdown areas because we’ve been told by Brisbane’s mayor and Queensland’s premier to stay away, but at the same time, the very same mayor and premier are urging us to go into the city to show the rest of the world what a vibrant, lively, multicultural place Brisbane is.

But on top of that, we’re in the middle of a heat wave. It was 33°C yesterday and today is predicted to reach 40°C. Some parts of the state will have their highest November temperature on record today. I’ve written before about how weather and climate shouldn’t be conflated, so I can’t in all honesty attribute this heat wave to climate change, but it’s another straw in the wind.

G20 Leaders Brisbane 2014

Official photograph of G20 leaders in Brisbane, 14 November 2014

You would never know it from the official photo, when the leaders lined up for their Class of 2014 photograph, all but a few of them in dark suits and ties. Even the women wore long sleeved jackets and trousers.

Suits are the uniform of political power. They are an all-purpose camouflage behind which politicians and businessmen conceal themselves in an enforced homogeneity that is really quite spurious. At home they may be democrats or dictators, polygamists or puritans, but in public they all look alike. So bravo to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for bucking the trend and dressing as he damned well pleases in traditional Arab gear. The summer temperatures in Riyadh are similar to Brisbane’s temperature today, so it’s a sensible move too.

Meanwhile, outside in the heat, demonstrators wore a much wider range of clothing, from Guy Fawkes masks (Anonymous) to angel wings (Climate Angels) to moon suits (Ebola). The most appropriately dressed were the Aboriginal protestors, since brown skin streaked with finger marks of ochre and ash is definitely best suited to Brisbane’s weather this weekend.

Aboriginal protest at G20

Aboriginal protest against black deaths in custody, in Brisbane Times, 14 November 2014

The protests so far have been orderly and peaceful, and relations between police and protestors seem to be fairly amiable, perhaps because they are fellow sufferers outside on the hot pavements. You don’t often hear security forces urging protestors to make sure they drink enough to stay hydrated in the heat.

It made me think, though, how much air conditioning has changed the language and the landscape of protest. Until air conditioning, riots generally occurred during the long hot summer. As the heat rose, tensions rose and tempers frayed, like characters in a Tennessee Williams play. In the poorer areas of cities, the poor lived in crowded tenements with little sanitation or ventilation. In many parts of the world they still do. In places like Tunis or Cairo, access to air conditioning still separates rich from poor. The best solution to summer heat in crowded slums is to come out into the streets to cool off – and to gossip and complain to each other.

Communal riots often followed. Sometimes there was a political agenda. More often summer riots focused on food prices. The weeks before the autumn grain harvest were the most dangerous time as food shortages pushed up the price of bread. The fall of the Bastille took place during the northern summer on 14 July 1789. I’m currently writing about the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales, which took place late in the southern summer, on 26 January 1808. Like all mutinies, it had multiple causes, but the ragged tempers of late summer can’t have helped, particularly for soldiers forced to endure the heat in unsuitable uniforms designed for British conditions.

The rich and powerful can afford to wear unsuitable clothing – jacket and trousers, long shirt and tie – because they live in an air-conditioned bubble. In France in 1789, there was no air-conditioned bubble, but the homes of the rich were warm and airy, and they had laundry maids. So the powerful wore silk knee breeches (culottes) and waistcoats of exquisite workmanship which cost a fortune to make and to maintain – the 18th century equivalent of power dressing.

The humble artisans who stormed the Bastille were given the name of sans culottes because they wore loose shirts and long trousers instead of the culottes of the court. The uniform of protest today seems to consist of jeans and tee shirt, with hoodies replacing the traditional anorak, as a defence against the omnipresence of CCTV cameras. But in 40° heat, all bets are off.

2 responses to “Suits and Sans Culottes in the long hot summer

  1. Hi Marion
    Talking about power, I notice that Obama’s is pretty much the blackest face in the G20 line up. The G20 might include Arabs and Indians and Indonesians, but Africans seem to be out of the loop.
    I have also been interested by the reactions of friends to the various dignitaries. Obama seems to win on star power, by a country mile.

  2. I think Jacob Zuma of South Africa is there in the back row, his face obscured by a waving hand. But yes, I agree, it’s a very white, male line up. I read somewhere that there were originally plans to include Nigeria in the 20, but they changed their mind. Who is ‘They’ anyway?

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