How Hillary wears the trousersWeekend FT
By Julie Earle-Levine
December 29 2007 02:00
Ah, the travails of being the leader of the pack. As Hillary Clinton heads into the Democratic presidential primary as the frontrunner, the mud is being slung fast and furious, and her clothes are getting a splattering. But is it because she is the biggest target around, or is it because - as she e-mailed in a note to supporters in response to some observations about a low-cut black jumpers she wore - she's female?
"Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting," she wrote, and not long after she could be found on ABC's The View commiserating with Barbara Walters about the fact that female candidates were unfairly analysed over their clothes. Truth is, however, she's going to have to get used to it. So says Edith Mayo, curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History and designer of the current Smithsonian First Ladies exhibition, which aims to place these women in the context of their husbands' administrations. As Mayo can attest, American First Ladies' wardrobes have always been an obsession. One can only presume that's even more true for first female presidential candidates.
And so Clinton is being scrutinised for her fashion sense - or lack of it. She wears unflattering trouser suits, floral-print blazers and uninspiring heels, her critics say; she looks "boring" and "cold". "People have realised that fashion is not Hillary's main interest," says Valerie Steele, director and curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "She just doesn't care."
Yet for world leaders, having an impact on fashion is inevitable. Is Clinton overreacting in dulling-down her appearance? Should she be harnessing the power of dress to project her political identity?
Mayo predicts that if elected, President Clinton will do more or less what Margaret Thatcher did: "wear some sort of power suit rather than strive for fashion elegance - except perhaps at state dinners or balls." Similarly, Michael Pick, author of Be Dazzled!: Norman Hartnell: Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion, a new book on the British designer who helped to shape the image of various royals, believes that Clinton "could work with a few designers to transform her image, much in the way Thatcher did".
After all, as Mayo says, Americans want their First Ladies to look current, but not necessarily to be fashion leaders or take risks with their wardrobes. "I think they want them to be wearing clothes that are not dowdy and are currently fashionable," says Mayo, "but unless you are Jackie Kennedy, or a former movie star like Nancy Reagan, voters don't usually want women in high fashion."
"In Italy and France women leading the country need to be wearing fashionable - even sexy - clothes," agrees Steele, but in the US, "Women are not supposed to flaunt their sexuality."
There are, of course, tricks to getting noticed in a positive way. As Pick points out, in the 1950s Hartnell created a more youthful image for Queen Elizabeth II by using stronger colours and patterns, while for the Queen Mother the idea was to make her look larger and of greater stature, so a draped and waist-tied pastel dress might be offset by a feathered hat and triple row of pearls.
Clinton's trouser suits, although they have drawn considerable attention, may not actually be the modern-day answer. According to Steele, the idea of a woman wearing trousers has connotations of her stepping outside her appropriate, ordained place in the universe - even though women have been wearing them since the 1920s, and wearing them to work since the 1970s.
"Clinton's critics will say she is wearing the trousers - that she is too powerful," says Steele. "I've [even] heard women complain that she is too ambitious. [But] don't you think anyone running for president should be?"