“Fashion! Turn to the left./Fashion! Turn to the right.”
—David Bowie, “Fashion” (1980)
Fashion matters. Though it’s tempting to think of style as a financial and decorative indulgence, a person’s mode of dress is connected to their priorities and identities, which aren’t so superficial. Often this phenomenon is intentional. An athletic logo on a cap is a way to represent one’s local heritage; a simple skirt can be deployed to queer the binary notions of gender that are loudly reinforced by “Men’s” and “Women’s” sections at every shopping mall in America; some secondhand shopping might be read as a commentary against the continuous generation of novelty that gets privileged over gratefulness for what material objects we already possess. And clothing has a bizarre power to imprint assumptions on others. Though the process is problematic, though it’s imperfect, we all engage in it every day—making unstated judgments about class, race, gender, or ideology based on what someone’s wearing, or broadcasting our own inner selves via graphic t-shirts and sloganeering tote bags. Sometimes fashion choices aren’t merely unexpected color pairings; sometimes they constitute statements about a host of important issues, forming an aesthetic parallel to the abstractions of beliefs and personalities.
Politicians know this well, as a rarefied class of individuals whose job description involves transmitting miniature versions of themselves to your television screen on a daily basis. Image consultants and stylists are now a standard, if unspoken, part of most major presidential campaigns. Ever since the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on September 24, 1960, appearance has been crucial to garnering the nation’s vote. Nixon, riding off of two terms as Vice President for the popular Dwight Eisenhower, had boasted better poll numbers than Kennedy before their debate. Listeners who tuned in with radio sets thought Nixon had prevailed, but America’s nascent community of television viewers thought Kennedy won. Nixon, who’d had a recent illness, looked like a mess: sweat beading, stubble sprouting. And would you look at that suit! Nothing conveys stuffiness quite like Nixon’s boxy three-button jacket when contrasted with the rakish, low-slung “V” of the two-button gracing Jack Kennedy’s chest. Liette Gidlow, a professor of history at Wayne State University, adds that Nixon’s choice of a gray suit “blended with the television backdrop,” which only diminished him further as he debated Kennedy on TV sets across the country. Kennedy overtook Nixon in the polls after that debate and won the election. Though it’s impossible to draw a direct causal line, it’s clear that Nixon’s suit wasn’t helping him navigate a crucial turning point.
Campaigning in the age of easy visual communications, then, has rendered everything a candidate wears more calculated. A seemingly nonchalant affectation like a shirt has become studied and intentional. Think of Mitt Romney’s last presidential gambit. Romney, stilted as he was, frequently appeared at campaign rallies in baggy, medium-blue jeans and a tucked-in Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, as if his clothing could communicate to voters: I’m professional and neat, but disregard my millions; I’m comfortably casual just like you, working middle class of America! As a white man, Romney could attire himself informally with nary a critical comment. Other candidates don’t have the privilege of freely toggling between formal and relaxed—especially not female politicians.
This year, Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential candidate for a major American political party. It’s a milestone—albeit a long overdue one—for a party that touts itself as the vanguard of progress and equality, a role it’s gotten especially comfortable inhabiting since it nominated the US’ first Black president eight distant years ago.
Much like Obama, Clinton has faced disproportionate scrutiny on account of her identity, whether her detractors admit it or not. Some of this criticism is warranted: the American people deserve to know whether Clinton was being furtive with her emails or in the speeches she delivered to bankers. They deserve to know whether she’s truly shifted away from racist criminal justice protocols she advocated in the 1990s, which continue to inflict damage on America’s communities of color. Clinton, however, doesn’t deserve all the gendered personal attacks she’s endured. Like many women, Clinton is ceaselessly tied to her husband’s actions as if her own vast and diverse career in public service didn’t exist. Like many women, Clinton isn’t free to be expressive lest she appear too emotional to hold office, but if she seems detached, raging misogynists like Donald Trump will publicly insist that she smile more. And like many women who live under the gaze of the media’s public eye, Clinton’s appearance is critiqued and re-critiqued.
Thus the pantsuit.
In her feature “The Revolutionary History of the Pantsuit,” Vice contributor Erica Euse charts the origins of women’s suiting, how a few progressive designers used fashion to express their belief in women’s equality and liberation. Coco Chanel was the first of these pioneers. In 1923, she drafted a design for a menswear-inspired suit that combined a wool jacket and knee-length skirt for women who wanted to enter the corporate workforce and gain some degree of financial independence. Marcel Rochas pressed further in 1932, when he introduced a women’s suit for which trousers were the bottom piece. Other designers continued to experiment with pantsuits over the next decade, and iconic actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn prompted scandal for wearing their slacks as they pleased. By the time Yves Saint-Laurent inaugurated a women’s tuxedo he named “Le Smoking Suit” in 1966, the sight of a woman in pants was still radical enough to provoke controversy.
It took until 1972, just over 40 years ago, for the US government to mandate that schools allow female students to wear pants. That was the year before Hillary Clinton’s graduation from Yale Law School. Controversies about pantsuits continued deep into the unabashed corporatism of the 1980s, as sharp suiting became the decade’s main method of office power dressing. Pantsuits are ubiquitous wardrobe pieces for today’s female politicians. But they weren’t allowed to wear them on the Senate floor until 1993, when Sen. Barbara Mikulski sported trousers to a session of Congress in protest of that little-known procedural rule. How far removed are we, really, from an age when a woman in a suit was necessarily intimidating and scandalous?
“Pantsuit aficionado,” reads her Twitter bio, alongside a slew of gendered descriptors: “wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, hair icon.”
The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote in August that female politicians like Clinton and Angela Merkel sport pantsuits out of an “uneasy compromise” between gender and power, which results in a style paradox. A pantsuit, Garber writes, has become a way to make a statement for women’s equality by making no statement at all, so as to preclude any of the fashion debates that unfairly plague female politicians. No one talks about the men’s clothing because it’s usually variations on the same baggy, dark suits around Washington. Garber’s analysis is especially fitting for Merkel, who tends to wear conservative black and navy suits that belie her governing principles. The same doesn’t hold true for Clinton. Though she opted for dark pantsuits at the Democratic Primary debates, much of her pantsuit arsenal is colorful and unique. And it’s presidential. That Clinton publicly identifies herself, in part, by her pantsuits is some indication that she doesn’t mind people talking about her fashion; in fact, she relishes that attention, finds humor in it.
Hillary Clinton isn’t the first powerful woman to make the pantsuit her uniform, but she is the first to wear it with such publicly personal flair and variability. Clinton has pantsuits in numerous shades of blue: periwinkle, powder, navy, turquoise. Not to mention the fuschia, the forest green, the golden metallic sheen. The white she wore head-to-toe as she accepted her nomination at the Democratic National Convention radiated. Her red suit at her first presidential debate with Donald Trump looked intense, confident, and natural all at once. She wears pantsuits in a veritable panoply of silhouettes: her jackets might be the usual waist length or longer, they might have an upward-pointing or shawl or classic collar with lapels, or no collar at all. My personal favorite is an astonishing ensemble in black leather that she wore to a private fundraiser in New York this April. Just for that, I could submit that Hillary Clinton is the most fashion-forward presidential candidate in recent American history.
Garber’s suggestion that Clinton’s pantsuits are non-statements seems unfair in light of their sheer glamour. Rather, the statement they make comes from her manipulation of what began as a drab menswear-inspired garment to her own multichromatic ends; she’s taken on the businesslike conformity of the pantsuit format, yes, but she wears it boldly. A collection of padded charcoal pantsuits, for instance, would read more like an attempt to work alongside the men in Washington without distinction. Her pantsuits have a quiet, under-acknowledged ambition about them—a description that I’d argue equally applies to Clinton’s career.
In their own way, Clinton’s pantsuits say a lot about her, which can’t be a mistake, given that she’s one of the most scrutinized statespeople in modern politics. She has been the subject of global media for well over two decades now, and she’s a woman, so she doubtlessly knows people are researching and ogling at what she wears. On a state trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2010, Clinton advised a female lawyer: “it’s rare for someone to say, ‘Oh, look what he is wearing.’ But if…any young woman walks into a courtroom, people are going to notice. And that will be an additional requirement that you have to meet.” That requirement is totally sexist, but Clinton works with it anyway. Though a seeming contradiction lies at the heart of this framing—how can one criticize an unjust fixation on women’s appearance while fixating on it?—that’s the sort of position Clinton operates within. Clinton’s style-maneuvers reflect a phrase writer Minh-Ha Pham wrote in a 2011 piece for Ms.: “If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it.” Often, Clinton’s hair and clothing unfortunately supersede her policy discourse, but she finds it more productive to work that dynamic to her advantage.
For one, note that Clinton prefers uber-American designers like Ralph Lauren, whose suiting she’s worn at two debates so far, as if to literally wear the nationalism required of political candidates upon her jacket sleeve. Lauren’s catalogs are known for preppy, 20th-century Ivy-League staples like prohibitively expensive polo shirts. It’s grandly ironic that Clinton wears Lauren’s pantsuits while pandering to midland working-class voters. These looks convey an iconic brand of Americana that’s out of reach for average Americans; note as well that she wore red at the first debate, blue at the second, and white at the final one this past Wednesday. To add to these sartorial displays of wealth, she’ll occasionally wear a high-powered European fashion house; she donned an Armani tweed jacket ($12,495, says the New York Post) as she declared victory over Bernie Sanders in New York’s Democratic primary. That jacket garnered much criticism, as did the revelation that she spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on her campaign uniform. Wardrobe pieces like these demonstrate a central problem that Clinton has never resolved: as a Democratic politician, Clinton is supposed to be at least somewhat anti-elite in her rhetoric, yet she’s elite enough to outfit herself in haute couture from the world’s best-known designers. Yet, as Rachel Lubitz writes for Mic.com, female politicians get more flak than their male counterparts for spending too much on clothes. Where’s the widespread critique of Donald Trump’s own luxurious Brioni suits, which, mind you, still fit him poorly? He too begs for the working-class vote as he thrives in one-percenter privilege.
That this election cycle, or any for that matter, has focused so much energy on appearance is admittedly bizarre. To devote any time to style seems a distraction from the pressing policy issues of a high-stakes campaign. It prompts a head-shake that Ken Bone became famous primarily for the red sweater he wore as he asked a question about climate change, one of the most important concerns of our time. But politicians are well-aware of our aestheticization of politics, and they work hard, spend wildly, to appeal to that baser instinct of we, the voters. If only to deconstruct the weird necessity of image-making, there’s value in analyzing how they use fashion as a persuasive tool. Particularly as Hillary Clinton faces Donald Trump, the most misogynistic presidential candidate in recent memory, eyes are on her as the woman who’ll combat his sexism at the polls. This week, fashion magazine Vogue made its first presidential endorsement ever for Clinton, collating fashion sense and politics in its pages. It wasn’t just for her policies. Her pantsuits are suits of armor, at once projecting ‘presidentiality’ and style; they reflect the problematic contradictions of a rich elite campaigning on a platform of egalitarianism; and they attempt to make good on the original promise of pantsuits—that a woman can be, can look, as qualified as anyone else to serve.
KELTON ELLIS B’18 is more of a Bernie guy, but really wants a tailored leather suit now.