What to Wear: Does it Matter?

I have to say that I’m posting this having a history of a very conflicted relationship with clothes.


And I get very frustrated when I want to read about a woman candidate’s political vision and what I get is a blow-by-blow of what she was wearing and how her hair was done. Or not.

But I also think it’s up to us to protest these kinds of comments when they are irrelevant to the issues being discussed. How often do we give feedback saying that this is not what we are interested in hearing about in the middle of a political discussion?

But I did find Maria Puente’s article in USA Today kind of interesting: Style Becomes a Real Issue in ’08 Presidential Race.

I’ve extracted some of it and bolded the bits I find most compelling:

But the fact is women in politics get more scrutiny about their appearance than male candidates. “Our research shows that when there’s one woman in a campaign, the first thing the press notices about her is what she’s wearing, what her hair looks like,” says Marie Wilson, director of The White House Project, a non-profit group promoting women in leadership.

After nearly seven years in the Senate and eight years in the White House as first lady, Clinton has a long, not always happy, history of wrestling with her appearance. Now she tries to defuse the matter with self-deprecation: Her campaign even issues small posters with pictures of six of her many hairstyles over the years: “Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will,” the cards read, quoting Clinton’s famous advice to Yale graduates in 2001. But Clinton’s sense of humor evaporates when the scrutiny gets withering.

When she showed a little cleavage on C-SPAN recently, The Washington Post‘s (female) fashion writer Robin Givhan analyzed her new, supposedly “sexy” look, eliciting thousands of angry letters, e-mails and calls from readers.

“I would never say clothes don’t matter, but attire is one thing — body parts are another,” says Ann Lewis, a Clinton senior adviser. “We’re drawing a line between discussions that are inevitable and discussions about anatomy.”

Choosing what to wear is easier for men because they have uniforms: navy suits, white shirts, red ties. “Women in politics have it worse because if they’re too much of a fashion plate, people think they’re superficial, and if they’re too sloppy, people make fun of them,” says Wendell Brown, senior fashion editor of Esquire.

Clinton, who wore mostly black or dark pantsuits when she first ran for the Senate, now sports colors strong enough to stand out on TV or front pages — pomegranate red, peacock blue, buttercup yellow, grass green. At debates with the other Democratic candidates, Clinton often punctuates the line of men in dark suits with an exclamation point of eye-popping color.

Why did she change? Her campaign declines to discuss it, but voters can’t help but notice. If she doesn’t want people to focus on her clothes then why is she wearing a pink jacket? Isn’t pink in this context intended to be noticed?

Yes, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, but not to the diminishment of substantive issues and not just Clinton. “If every candidate at the debate gets three sentences and one of the sentences about her is the pink jacket, then she gets less coverage than the men,” says Lake. “If the jacket is relevant to comment on, then why not comment on what the guys are wearing?

For male candidates, the goal is clear: People should not notice what you’re wearing in a way that steps on your message. That’s why Republican Fred Thompson, former U.S. senator and Law & Order star, set off so many guffaws when he wore Italian-made leather loafers (reported to be Gucci or Ferragamo) to the Iowa State Fair.

“If you’re Barack Obama and you’re going to a weenie roast in Iowa wearing a black Prada suit with a suppressed waist, people will notice,” says Jeff Bercovici, who covered the intersection of politics and pop culture for Radaronline. “You have to match people’s expectations, to anticipate so seamlessly what people expect you to show up looking like so when you do they don’t even notice.”

Obama doesn’t own a Prada suit and doesn’t know what a suppressed (low-rise) waist is, says spokesman Bill Burton. Obama is “a lot more focused on changing the country than how candidates might be changing their clothes.”

So do the media and the voters read too much into the candidates’ appearance and attire? Or do these questions truly reflect what kind of president they might be?

Huffington says voters want sexiness and good looks to “go hand in hand with empathy, compassion and caring.” Cisneros says votes don’t hinge on whether a candidate has had Botox or a good haircut.

“But we really don’t want our candidates to look tired,” she says. “If you don’t look like you have the energy to make it through the campaign, you’re not going to have the energy to be president.”

So — are you convinced?Do you think it is important to match the expectations of others?

I’m not so sure — if part of your message is about how you think things might be done differently or about how you are bringing seomthing new and different to what you do, why try to look like they “expect”you to look?

Instead, I very much like the kernel embedded in the article as advice “for men”: ..the goal is clear: People should not notice what you’re wearing in a way that steps on your message.

I have no idea why Maria thought this was true just for men. Instead, I think it is at the crux of what everyone should consider when dressing for whatever they do — your clothes, your hair, your make-up, whatever — your appearance should not step on your message.

And if it does, then it does become something to comment on by those assessing how you’re doing.

If it doesn’t, and media or others comment anyway, why don’t we speak up and re-direct them to what we’re really in?

What do you think? Does appearance matter? If you think it does, please share why. If not, what can we do to prevent someone making it interfere with the message when it shouldn’t?


2 Responses

  1. We live in a society where women have more opportunities than ever before, we can do anything we want to. The problem comes because we are expected to be able to do it all at once. Women are literally expected to be superwomen holding a job, looking after children, a home and a husband and at the same time have enough time to keep slim and denote beautifully apply makeup. The traditions of the past have simply combined with the ones of the present day making the expectations people have for women and that we have for ourselves highly unachievable. It infuriates me that female politicians are judged on their appearance rather than simply their ability and policy ideas however, I suggest that this is not going to change whilst society is still re-adjusting to this apparent equality we have achieved.

  2. Sarah:

    I agree that the expectations for women are very high indeed.

    Yet I don’t see how society can change if the people most involved don’t facilitate that very change. (I really wanted to say push for it ;-).

    I would love to see women, not just those involved in politics, but all of us, object to media that takes space to comment on appearance, wherever that appearance is not relevant to the message.

    I would love to hear female politicians and those around them “push back” against stories that emphasize appearance.

    Can you imagine what might happen if we all wrote letters of protest every time there were appearance comments in “political” stories?

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