• Don Dunstan's shorts now on display in the Centre for Democracy in Adelaide. (centreofdemocracy.sa.gov.au)Source: centreofdemocracy.sa.gov.au
SA Premier Don Dunstan was defined not by his sexuality, but by his politics about sexuality.
Nama Winston

30 Oct 2017 - 3:22 PM  UPDATED 30 Oct 2017 - 3:25 PM

States of Undress explores the relationship between culture and clothing all over the world. From the burkini in France to transgender fashion in Thailand, host and former model Hailey Gates explores global fashion, showing us what the world wears, and why.

The series, now in its second season, hasn’t yet visited Australia, so the world doesn’t yet know about one of our most iconic fashion moments: the day a pair of shorts made national headlines. 

The year was 1972. The shorts were short, pink and worn on the steps of Parliament House by South Australian premier Don Dunstan.

It was quite the sartorial statement, especially for the small city of Adelaide – a place which had recently "grown up" and transformed from an ostensibly large country town to a city with a sophisticated arts scene that was embracing cultural diversity and thriving under historic democratic reforms, all under Dunstan’s leadership.

Donald Allan Dunstan ​(21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999) was premier of South Australia for two terms spanning 1967 to 1979, totalling almost a decade in office. A staunch social reformist, the Labor candidate's advocacy for equality and compassion across all sectors of the community made him a radical political figure in a conservative town. 

​And that's the way he wanted it. Because this white male from a middle-class family was there to open minds by representing something Adelaide severely lacked in its public arena: acceptance of diversity.

On that day in 1972, Dunstan proudly wore his pink shorts in honour of democracy and everything he fought for. He was aware it would attract attention and was determined to be seen.​ Apparently, Dunstan’s minders had been trying to shield the premier from being photographed by the press. But at around 4pm, Dunstan snuck out and posed in all his pink glory.

News footage of the time was sadly in black and white, and doesn't do justice to the moment. But everyone at the time knew its significance.​ The charismatic and confident ​Dunstan had always been a flamboyant dresser, embracing '70s florals and safaris suits in preference of traditional politician's attire. But as a white, middle-aged man (the stereotype of a conservative) – the premier no less – the wearing of such unconventional attire to work was his ultimate salute to diversity.

​The pink shorts came to represent Dunstan's political legacy, and have been used to promote everything from one of his biographies to a musical about his life.

The shorts were bequeathed to Dunstan’s widowed partner, Stephen Cheng, who donated them for display when they were this year elevated to icon status in Adelaide's new Centre for Democracy. The Centre was opened to celebrate South Australia’s legislative pioneering history – SA was the first colony to grant women the vote and allow them to stand for Parliament (1895), have female police officers (1915), establish a public housing trust (1936), introduce the first of its kind Prohibition of Discrimination Act (1966) and legalise abortion (1970).

And then came the “Dunstan Decade”, when South Australia saw the greatest slab of significant reforms under one premier, defining Dunstan as one of the most progressive politicians Australia has ever seen.

Dunstan was indeed no ordinary premier. Born in Fiji and having later practised law there, he was deeply committed to social justice, cultural diversity, democracy, human rights and respect for Indigenous people. Dunstan was responsible for the state being the first to decriminalise homosexuality in Australia, earning him hero status in Adelaide's gay community.

He also drove legislative reforms on land rights, anti-discrimination laws and environmental protection. He was instrumental in the elimination of the White Australia Policy. Other examples of his social reforms included the introduction of legislation for consumer protection, the abolition of capital punishment and child protection reforms.

As premier, Dunstan overhauled the drinking laws that closed pubs at 6pm, and because of his love of food and wine – he later opened his own restaurant, Don’s Table – he encouraged the emergence of a new restaurant culture that set Adelaide on the path to having the reputation of a food destination it does today.

Dunstan was also a passionate patron of the arts and was responsible for cultivating a thriving live theatre scene. The Dunstan Playhouse is one of Adelaide’s largest theatre venues and was named to honour his contribution to the performing arts.

In the context of the “Dunstan Decade”, the significance of the premier’s wearing of the pink shorts, as a clear act in defiance of conservatism, is obvious. The shorts have earned their place as the representation of Dunstan’s integral role in South Australia’s democratic history. 

The symbolism of the shorts is today more relevant than ever, especially given Australia’s current civil rights debate about marriage equality. During his tenure, Dunstan’s sexuality was rumoured to be ambiguous, although he was married with kids. Out of office, Dunstan spent the last decade of his life in a gay relationship with Cheng, who acknowledges, "They are an important part of the history of South Australia, where there were a lot of changes and people were allowed to have more freedom." His relationship with Cheng, which began in 1988, gives personal context to his much earlier act of decriminalising homosexuality – but it doesn’t overshadow it.

Dunstan was, and remains, more remembered for his humane act for a marginalised group, rather than for his sexuality. He is a South Australian cultural icon because he was a revolutionary who, after a life of fighting for others, commenced a chapter that was for the side of him that remained hidden for too long. Which is why his pink shorts came to be the ultimate expression of freedom.


Watch season 2 of States of Undress at SBS On Demand:

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