MODERATOR 1: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
SECRETARY CLINTON: What designers of clothes?
MODERATOR 1: Yes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Would you ever ask a man that question?
MODERATOR 1: Probably not. Probably not. (Applause.)
Just moments before this cringe conversation, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat before a group of young students and professionals in a 2010 “townterview” in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. After discussing mundane questions and reassuring the audience she wasn’t afraid to be in Bishkek despite the recent explosion, she advised a young female lawyer on how to succeed in a world where sexist attitudes are a commonplace at work and in life.
“If you are in the courtroom or you are presenting a case, it still is a fact - and this is not just in Kyrgyzstan, this is everywhere - that when a man walks into a courtroom it’s rare for someone to say, “Oh, look what he is wearing.” (Laughter.) But if you walk into a courtroom, or any young woman walks into a courtroom, people are going to notice,” she told the young woman.
These words were spoken in the literal moment before the moderator’s sexist question and he proved her point exactly! I guess he was too busy admiring her green blazer to notice the words coming out of her mouth.
The double standard regarding the clothes female politicians wear has existed in this country since the first woman of Congress, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) assumed her role in 1917. Immediately newspapers highlighted Rankin’s personal appearance rather than her policies. In March of that year, a Washington Post headline read, “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.” They re-assured readers that she was, “a woman who is thoroughly feminine—from her charmingly coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high, and distinctively French heels. She is given to soft and clinging gowns, and, according to her own confession, is very fond of moving pictures.”
A blog post by House’s History, Art & Archives explained reporters and editors treated her the only way they knew how — as a “society page subject” rather than a woman making history. Rankin did not have an extensive legislative record due to the restrictions placed on women running for government and before this women were seen as objects — things to be gossiped about around the dinner table — not people, and certainly not people in power. But it is rather clear that most of these descriptions were subliminal messages to belittle women in politics and show their weaknesses by describing their “small heels” and “coiffed hair.”
Katherine Langley, a representative for Kentucky during the 1920s to 1930s, also received snarky comments, but for her, it was that she dressed too colorfully. “She offends the squeamish by her unstinted display of gypsy colors on the floor and the conspicuousness with which she dresses her bushy blue-black hair,” one reporter wrote.
Some women, like Alice Mary Robertson, the second woman in Congress, choose to stay under the radar with their looks. Perhaps they had hoped do dodge the bash of the media or simply did not want to make a fuss. Robertson said she would rather be “A humble little light that shines a long-distance across the prairies than a brilliant skyrocket that flashes in midair for a few seconds and then falls to the earth with a dull thud.” She also made it clear that “If people think that I am going to do something sensational they are mistaken. I am a conservative. I am a Christian. I am an American. I am a Republican.’”
Now in 2020, in the age of social media, sexist Fox News reporters, and incel (involuntary celibates) Reddit groups, women in politics are forever scrutinized on their wardrobe picks. When a woman decides to run for office, it’s almost as if the reporter's first question might as well be “We don’t care about your policies honey, what’s in your closet?” It’s time to cut the concealed crap.
Clothes are like the lottery — you never know if your look will hit the media’s jackpot
Nothing is clearer than the crystal ball that shows how women are held at an unfair standard compared to men when it comes to clothes. Regardless of if you are a congresswoman, First Lady, celebrity, or a 15-year-old girl in high school, wearing what makes you happy can lead you to feel the exact opposite. The crop top you thought was cute could have you called a slut by a stranger, the pride you feel wearing the diamond earrings you worked hard to buy may melt away because someone says “she’s trying too hard,” and instead of posting that picture of you in a cute bathing suit on Instagram you worry about people commenting on your butt/ boobs or lack thereof. So you post a picture of the waves instead.
“You have to celebrate fashion but also be aware of the message people are going to take away,” said Meredith Koop, Michelle Obama’s stylist for her years in the White House, in an interview with the New York Times. “Fashion can bolster communications in the best-case scenario, or be a silent partner, or actually distract.”
Every woman knows what it’s like to be judged by what you wear but for women in politics, there is even more pressure to look the part. Like Koop said, for women in politics they want the clothes they wear to communicate a positive message to the people about who they are and what they stand for. You can’t come off too “feminine” because people might think your to girly to get your hands dirty and dive into real business, but you can’t be too masculine because that means you are a scary monster who eats peoples hearts and sucks their blood, and no one likes a woman like that!
In November of 2018, Eddy Scarry of the notoriously conservative Washington Examiner, tweeted a picture of Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a rising Democrat from New York City, in a black coat with the caption, “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Two years ago not as many people knew of the powerhouse Ms. AOC, but even then she didn’t let some misogynistic man bully her.
Neither did the public. People criticized him for his comment and his implication that people who struggle can’t look nice or wear good coats. While no one knows how much the coat cost exactly, AOC has made it clear from the beginning of her political career that she wanted to fight for the people at the bottom of the totem pole because she knew what it was like to be stuck there all her life. She wasn’t afraid of being a political outsider and highlights her Bronx heritage and how she formerly worked as a bartender. “It’s time for one of us,” she boasted in her first campaign ad.
Scarry later deleted the tweet because people “took it the wrong way.” He tweeted that AOC looked “well put together — ELEGANT EVEN.” Wonder why he just didn't say that then … When female politicians don’t dress nicely and appropriately to the male gaze they get crucified and when they do they also get backlash. We can’t win.
After Scarry’s tweet, AOC tweeted that the reasons journalists “can’t help but obsess about my clothes,” was because “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office — or win.” And in New York swag she wrapped it up, “& that's exactly why the Bronx and Queens sent me here.”
In 2011 political cartoon, cartoonist Glenn Foden made fun of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for taking a $10,000 trip to Hawaii with Pelosi in a t-shirt and tiny bikini bottom telling the lobby man to “Take those up to her room” and “Freshen [her] drink.” Two years earlier in another political cartoon, Nancy Pelosi’s fluffy and lacey undergarment had fallen underneath her dress and has the words “Liar” printed upon it. “Your slip is showing,” the man next to her whispers.
In 2008 VP pick Sarah Palin came under fire when Politico reported that the Republican National Convention has spent over $150,000 on clothes and accessories for Palin and her family. This conflicted with her image as an “average hockey mom” from Alaska and in a 2010 Vanity Fair article they reported on this story under the headline, “Sarah Palin’s Shopping Spree.”
Since you are all paying such close attention, I might as well show off a message
Since women are the smartest of the land (duh), ladies in politics knew the media would pay attention to what they wore and started to show messages with their garments.
Last Wednesday, Hillary Clinton, Gabby Giffords, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi all wore white to show support to the women’s suffrage movement at the 2020 virtual Democratic National Convention. Last Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. But, the 19th amendment certainly did not represent all types of women, Asian women did not get the right to vote until 1952 and another 13 years would pass before all women of color would be able to. The Women’s Suffrage movement is complicated and has many unaddressed issues but it did pave the path for feminism in our country.
White, purple, and gold were the official colors of the National Women’s Party and the suffragist movement. According to the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage‘s statement of purpose, the colors represented, purple for “loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause,” gold for “the color of light and life and “the torch that guides our purpose.” And white, “the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose.”
In the 1900s suffragists wore white because white and black photography was the only way pictures could be visually documented. “White provided a clear and bright contrast on the front pages of newspapers, attracting the eye of readers,” said Fashionbook. Having a color as the unifying symbol instead of a specific garment gave women of any race, social, or economic standard a chance to feel safe within the movement.
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm wore white as she became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. In 2016, Hillary Clinton wore white as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president, which made her the first woman to make it past the primary election. She also wore white when she attended Donald Trump’s inauguration. “That was purposeful,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and co-author of the book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters. “She wanted people to cover that.”
Earlier this year, the female members of Congress made a sartorial statement by wearing the “suffragette white” to the State of the Union address. Representative Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) said the group continues to stand "against President Trump's backward agenda," which she says challenges "the foundation that was built by the women pioneers of this country."
This act of resilience comes a long way from the 1990s when there was an “unwritten rule” that women couldn’t wear pants on the Senate floor. But the rule changed in 1993 when Carol Moseley-Braun, the first Black woman elected to Senate, wore an Armani pantsuit, unaware of the rule.
“It was kind of shocking to me at the time that there would be this unwritten rule that women had to wear dresses,” Moseley-Braun said. “What century is this?”
Soon everyone was wearing pants. Moseley-Braun also faced another layer of discrimination as a woman of color. She got backlash for wearing her hair in braids. “I spent a lot of time getting my hair done, and I thought I looked really nice,” she said. She later found out two women working at a McDonald’s got fired for wearing their hair in braids, “and their defense became, the United States senator is wearing her hair like this, so why can’t we?”
“I’m not sorry about any of it,” she said.
The default when we talk about clothing women in politics wear does not have to be misogyny. Clothes are a powerful tool for self-expression no matter who you are. Why do you think kids love picking out the first day of school outfits, it is to make a statement about who you are (this year virtual backgrounds on Zoom will have to substitute)!
Unlike her colleagues at the DNC last Wednesday, Democratic Vice President Pick Kamala Harris (D-CA) chose to wear a burgundy pantsuit as she accepted her nomination. Senator Harris is of African American, Jamaican, and Indian descent, making her the first woman of color to be nominated for VP. Similar to the color of the movement, the Suffrage movement only cared about white women. By wearing burgundy, Senator Harris represents “a new era” as this New York Times article states. An era where feminism is about intersectionality and encourages the progress of every type of woman.
Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, wore a gold looping necklace that said “Vote” on the Monday night of the convention. The small boutique owner, Chari Chubert, who created the necklace told CNN "I was at my office, and I just sat there as my phone was going crazy, and I started to cry.” The necklace which once cost $300 now retails at $3,000 and sales have skyrocketed after Monday night. Even accessories women in politics wear mean something.
The First Lady’s outfits never go unnoticed
While First Ladies themselves aren’t politicians they represent a bridge between everyday women in America and the White House in which they reside. Some First Ladies are ahead of their times, others perfectly reflect the moment in which women live in or they might lag behind with old and unpopular ideas. The clothing the First Lady wears can show relatability, be inspirational, or stir up necessary — or ridiculous — conversations.
On the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Jackie Kennedy wore a “pink bouclé suit, widely reported to be Chanel (though it turned out to be a close replica of a Chanel), and a pillbox hat,” according to Teen Vogue. Although her husband had been shot and killed next to her in the Lincoln Continental they sat in, she kept her blood-spattered suit on. "Let them see what they have done," she asserted.
This was an incredible sign of resilience and showed the overwhelming love Jackie had for her husband. The country looked to her for strength after their 35th president had been assassinated and a way to move forward.
Michelle Obama has made fashion history with her stunning looks. For instance, her 2012 dress to the DNC, changed designer Tracy Reese’s career. Michelle had worn some of Reese’s designs before but now Reese is recognized as one of the best Black fashion designers. NPR reported that many of the items she wears sell out almost instantly, but the former First Lady’s fashion philosophy is simple. "I always say that women should wear whatever makes them feel good about themselves. That's what I always try to do," she told Vogue in 2013.
Michelle Obama’s clothes have also stirred controversies that are laughable. I can’t believe they even exist.
In 2009 on a trip to the Grand Canyon, she was photographed wearing shorts (it’s a vacation people !) as she stepped off the plane. “But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common,” a writer of the Washington Post exclaimed about her look. She later regretted the “huge stink” it caused.
In March of that year, Michelle Obama was criticized for showing her “toned triceps and biceps” in her first official photo as First Lady. People were not fans of the First Lady sporting a sleeveless dress. "Most of the complaints centered on the dress conveying a sense of informality on a serious occasion," said Chicago Tribune style reporter Wendy Donahue.
The current First Lady, Melania Trump faced backlash after she wore a green cargo jacket from Zara that had the words “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?," painted on the back before flying to an immigrant shelter in Texas. Not a very smart choice when visiting children shelter hmm?
Then Hillary Clinton, the “pantsuit aficionado” as her Twitter bio once read, has faced love and hate because of her go-to pantsuit look from her time as First Lady to her run for president in 2016.
Timeline of Hillary Clinton’s Pantsuit Saga
In the early years, Hillary wore pantsuits when she was a 26-year-old attorney working on the Watergate commission. She was one of few women working on the case but even then she didn’t succumb to society’s pressure. The year prior, the executive vice president of Revlon told women you, “can do anything you want to do, without any criticism being directed at you. If you want to wear pantsuits at the office instead of a skirt, fine."
With third-wave feminism on the rise after the Anita Hill Case, women fought passionately against workplace sexual harassment and aimed to have more women in positions of power like politics. Even though Hillary wasn’t running for office, in 1992 on husband Bill Clinton’s campaign trail, she made it known she was a modern woman of her own right and not a prop
for the media to toss around and forget. Women wore pins that said, “Elect Hillary’s Husband.” However, she did stir up controversy when she remarked, “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." She continued to dress like an attorney, symbolizing that becoming First Lady didn’t mean you had to give up your identity and shift your ideals because of your husband.
Hillary was a stark contrast to former First Ladies, like Mamie Eisenhower's obsession with pink and Nancy Regan’s bedazzled attires. Her demeanor wasn’t seen as a “traditional” First Lady. Hillary knew law and politics due to her former profession, therefore she and Bill Clinton were seen as a package deal during their years in office.
When the Lewinsky scandal happened in 1998, Hillary went back to pantsuits after shuffling aside in the years before to focus on her job as head of task force on national health care reform. It was a power move to show her seniority over Bill’s younger mistress, Monica Lewinsky and she didn’t care what people thought of her. In an article by Racked it states perfectly, “She might have been holding Bill's hand, but she was wearing exactly what she wanted to.”
Hillary wore pantsuits whenever and wherever — including the Shakespeare in Love premiere in 1998 where she wore a black pantsuit with a gold collar next to the star of the film, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hillary’s love of pantsuits and power suits helped separate herself from her colleagues and establish herself as a badass woman. In 2000, she was elected Senator of New York, the first First Lady to do so, and shined on stage in a pale blue pantsuit. In 2009, when Hillary became Secretary of State, Bill Clinton was now holding her hand, and for the next years her pantsuits continued to make headlines.
In 2011, Tim Gunn, former host of Project Runway, went on George Lopez’s show Lopez Tonight and had no problem spewing hot sexist garbage towards Hillary Clinton. "Why must she dress that way? I think she's confused about her gender!" He added, "No, I'm really serious, she wears pantsuits that are unflattering." Then he went on to talk about her "cankles."
During her 2016 run for President, several websites made galleries of the rainbow of Hillary's pantsuits, and I don’t know about you but I can scroll through them for hours! Too iconic.
Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits are a symbol of freedom, control, and being who you want to be. “Some people like my clothes and some people don’t. It goes with the territory,” Clinton writes. “You can’t please everybody, so you may as well wear what works for you.”
On that note …
She’s right, wear whatever you want because people will always have a problem with it! The problem in the way we talk about the clothes women in politics wear is a matter of inequality and rooted misogyny in the way we talk about women in general. Women still are not greeted with a welcome mat by the halls of government.
There is no doubt that male politicians have fallen to critique their clothing as well. Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan has been taunted for his baggy suits, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times compared him to “Tom Hanks in ‘Big’ when he becomes a kid again.”
President Barack Obama has been known for his loyalty to blue and gray suits, but when he deviated from the theme and wore a tan suit, people were outraged. Representative Peter King (R-NY) said that his color choice showed that he did not care about foreign policy.
But these “ instances are the exception, not the rule,” as the Vox article states. Reporters and media are still uncomfortable with women taking control of their bodies (take Cardi B and Megan Thee Stalion’s WAP for example ?) and fall back on their default attack method: go for her clothes.
It would be unreasonable to expect a perfect utopia where no one ever talks about each other’s clothing. But equality would mean talking about women and male politician's clothing in the same regard, as one part of the puzzle of their self-image.
Just two years ago, Representative-elect Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, co-wrote a proposal with Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) to create an exception to the House’s 181-year-old ban on hats. This new proposal now allows religious headwear, so Omar could wear a headscarf to work without fear of prosecution. “No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” she tweeted in November. “It’s my choice — one protected by the first amendment.” Omar did what she had to do for her religion, other little Muslim girls who want to be politicians one day, and to be seen as who she is.
So wear those pantsuits, gold hoops, black coats, and red lipstick. People will just have to get used to it.