COULD Michelle Obama save bureaucrats from the national sport of public service bashing?
A cultural studies academic suggests that by wearing cardigans America's first lady is inverting a stereotype that has dogged public servants for decades.
Prudence Black, of the University of Sydney, will address a conference today on the history of the garment, as worn by government workers.
She traced the cardigan's 19th-century origins, as clothing worn by ''tradespeople, fishermen, in fact anything but a desk job'', to its ubiquity among bureaucrats in the 1960s.
Today the word cardigan remains a pejorative term for an ineffectual public servant. And wearing one can connote a laid-back work ethic, stemming from the outdated notion that a public servant has a job for life.
''There's this idea that having the security of a government job allows a relaxed manner in regard to dress codes,'' Dr Black said. ''If you're characterised through the stereotype of cardigan-wearing, it can mean you're out of date or stuck in your ways.''
However, some attitudes are shifting, thanks in part to Ms Obama, who regularly wears the maligned garment at high-profile events.
She even wore a black cardigan on the night her husband won the 2008 presidential election.
''I love the way she wears them: she pulls the sleeves up, as though she's saying: 'I'm ready to work','' Dr Black said. ''You can't imagine Julia Gillard or Margaret Thatcher in a cardigan.''
Dr Black said the cardigan was the worker's friend: practical, as it could be thrown in a bag or over the back of a chair, or worn after work to ''dress up'' an outfit. But even Canberrans know not to wear a cardigan in Parliament, she said.
However, Dr Black hoped public servants' love of the garment will not succumb to the weight of an old, negative stereotype.
''That would be such a shame, because cardigans are so comfortable and so useful,'' she said.
Dr Black will speak today at the Institute of Public Administration Australia's conference in Melbourne.