When it was revealed this month that Hillary Clinton wore an Armani jacket that cost nearly $12,500 in April while giving a victory speech after the New York primary, mainstream media outlets and social media platforms alike lambasted her. Clinton’s clothing choice was presented across these media as a direct contradiction to her efforts in her speech to present herself as an “everywoman.” How can she possibly have empathy for the poor while making such a blatant display of conspicuous consumption, after all? (Conspicuously absent from all of this criticism was any mention of how much male politicians spend on their suits.) Her sartorial choice became a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter. Articles on sites from CNBC to the New York Post traced the development of her personal style from “frumpy” first lady to pant-suited Secretary of State to, most recently, lavishly adorned presidential candidate.
It was a debacle that exemplified how gender roles and expectations shape the lives of women in politics—and how the double-standards applied to them put their appearances, and not just their politics, in the national spotlight.
Fashion choices undeniably play a role in political processes, as they do in many professional contexts. Research has shown that appearance plays a role in determining election outcomes, especially when combined with other factors such as race, gender and ethnicity. For women, the stakes are particularly high—and unsurprisingly, it is often women who face scrutiny for their appearances when taking the public stage.
Michelle Obama has been simultaneously lauded as the “first lady of fashion” and widely scorned for choosing to bare her (impeccably toned) arms. Sarah Palin was denounced as elitist by fellow Republicans when it was revealed that the Republican Party spent close to $150,000 on her campaign wardrobe. Hillary Clinton, after speaking in Bangladesh sans makeup and wearing glasses, was said by DailyMail to look “tired and withdrawn,” her lack of attention to appearance clearly evidencing her complete lack of desire to make another run at the presidency.
Meanwhile, it is hard to find entire posts dedicated to the fashion successes and faux-pas of men in the American political sphere. Perhaps the most controversial sartorial escapade of Obama’s presidency was his daring choice to wear a tan suit to a press conference in 2014, which sparked many a lighthearted joke on Twitter. Clothing-related controversy around Trump’s campaign has focused almost exclusively on whether or not his brand’s designer suits and ties are produced outside of the United States, rather than on the price of the suits he wears himself. Though significant Twitter debate arose over whether the suit Bernie Sanders wore at the March 9 Democratic debate was blue, brown, or black, his choice to make “perceived anti-fashion statements” by wearing ill-fitting clothing goes largely without criticism, seen as a sensible outcome of his choice to portray himself as a common man.
When it came to this year’s presidential race, it was clear that candidates all made strategic fashion choices. Bernie Sanders’ frizzy-haired, dowdy look paints him as a man of the people, too concerned with grand political schemes to consider fashion. Donald Trump, despite his penchant for trucker hats and his unmistakable blond comb over, presents himself mainly as a trimmed and professional real estate mogul with an admitted taste for $7,000 Brioni suits. Yet neither Sanders nor Trump has received the same kind of backlash over their choice of apparel as Clinton has for hers.
While most male politicians seem to float by wearing staple dark-colored suits, red and blue ties, and white collared shirts, women in the field seem to be caught in a ceaseless sartorial double-bind: If they choose not to dress up, they are tired, unattractive or overly exposed; if they dish out the dollars for an expensive outfit, they undeniably undermine any efforts to relate to poor and working-class constituents.
Nearly 100 years after women won suffrage, we’re still waiting for those in the realm of politics to be judged not for the fabrics on their skin, but the content of their minds. In my opinion, a shift in this mindset would truly be the fairest of them all.