The Political Runway: Fashion, gender and politics in America

There's more that goes into how Americans pick their politicians than where they stand on the issues. It's why politi...

Posted: Feb 16, 2018 4:29 PM
Updated: Feb 16, 2018 4:29 PM

There's more that goes into how Americans pick their politicians than where they stand on the issues. It's why politicians fill out March Madness brackets and release Spotify playlists. It's why they talk about their upbringing, marriages and families.

It's also why they can be so thoughtful with what they wear.

Fashion in politics is often dismissed as superfluous and unworthy of serious thought and consideration. But the clothing politicians and their spouses decide to wear is ultimately a choice about how they'd like to present themselves publicly. Intentionally or not, what they wear sends a message.

"I think that there are a lot of times when people make their choices about clothing purely as a matter of aesthetics," said Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, in an interview for the COVER/LINE podcast. "But I think there are equally as many instances when people make choices based on a serious concerted effort to communicate in a very specific way, and to deliver a nonverbal message."

First lady Melania Trump sparked questions about her own non-verbal message when she arrived in all white to the State of the Union address last month amid accusations her husband had an affair with a porn star who was paid to keep quiet. Melania's communications director called speculation about the symbolism of her designer clothing that night "silly scrutiny." But white was one of the colors worn by suffragettes, and it's been worn more recently by women including Democratic lawmakers to Trump's 2017 address to a joint session of Congress and Kesha just days earlier to perform "Praying," a #MeToo anthem that predated the movement by about three months.

Although it's women in politics who are most often scrutinized for their clothing, men aren't immune. President Trump's ill-fitting suits and long ties have become as much of his caricature as his hair, and during the 2016 race, Rick Perry's new glasses were criticized for being a too-obvious attempt to rebrand as more intellectual, and Marco Rubio got made fun of for his boots.

But the difference in how we view the clothing of men and women in politics is an extension of "the difference between the way men and women dress generally," Givhan said.

While male politicians are limited in what they wear, sticking mostly to suits and ties, women have more options.

"When it comes to the way that women dress, there is a lot more leeway, there's a lot more variety," she said. "There's a lot more of an opportunity to dress in a way that reflects your personality, your mood, just whatever might delight you on a given day. And there is also a tendency to presume that any conversation about women's attire is very superficial and frivolous."

First ladies know this as well as anyone. Before Melania, other first ladies faced criticism for their wardrobes, like Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known for her pricey frocks. "You can imagine this did not go over well in the press, and it upset her husband," Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, told COVER/LINE. And Calvin Coolidge seemed worried his wife, Grace, known for her style, would overshadow him.

"She was so popular that her husband, who was much more of an introvert, did not want her to present herself in public as much as she did," Perry said. "So, he actually cut back on some of her public statements and her public appearances."

More recently, the wardrobe of Hillary Clinton, as the only woman who's dressed as both a first lady and presidential candidate, took on a historic nature.

"I think people were so obsessed with what she was wearing and how she looked and how she carried herself was because I think culturally, as a country, we were having this really messy public conversation," said Givhan. "What does power on a woman look like?"

As more women are elected to office, we could see the way we think about their clothing change.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, a costume designer for "Veep," said she noticed women in politics would often try to "blend into the man's world," but credits Michelle Obama in part with breaking that mold.

"I think a lot of women in politics try to play it safe, or at least did try to play it safe," she said. But in preparing to dress Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the role of a woman vice president and president for "Veep," Felix-Hager spent time in Washington, including at the Obama White House, and saw young staffers, especially those who worked for the first lady, wore a lot more colors and accessories.

"I think Michelle Obama definitely had an influence on young women in that city, which I found interesting and fun, as opposed to, I had done a show years before called 'The West Wing,'" she said. "I wasn't the designer on that show, but the color palette of that show was very specific as far as grays and blues, and very muted."

To dress Louis-Dreyfus, they made up their "own rules," something Felix-Hager called "freeing and liberating."

"To play up her femininity but not throw it in your face, also, to use it as a position of power because being a woman in Washington, there are so few of them," she said. "I mean there's more lately but I think it's an opportunity to sort of say, 'I'm a woman. I can still like fashion, I can still wear color, I can still be appropriate.'"

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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

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