Do The Clothes Make The Woman?

Here is my wish for the coming presidential campaign season: that no matter who the candidates are, we will talk more about substance than appearances. This occurred to me when I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column discussing the recent Benghazi Committee hearings. Noonan mentioned that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was beautifully coiffed and made up and wore a “sober, dark high-end pantsuit.” In response to young journalists who told her she wasn’t allowed to describe how Clinton dressed, Noonan said that journalists should not start out as “word cops.” She then went on to describe in parentheses what the (male) Committee Chairman wore. (Whether she would have commented on the Chairman’s clothes absent the critique of her mention of Clinton’s pantsuit only she knows.)

Tea Leoni as the fictional Madam Secretary Elizabeth McCord

The last time Hillary Clinton ran, my cousin, a woman about 15 years older than me, complained about the pantsuits, saying: “Why doesn’t Hillary feel free to dress like a girl?” This view sees the pantsuits as a way to conform with the male standard for clothing. Perhaps when my cousin started in the business world, women were pushed to dress as much like men as possible. To me, though, this choice by a woman candidate was a welcome signal that I no longer needed to show my legs to be seen as dressing appropriately when I represented a client in court or attended formal meetings. I like both skirt suits and pantsuits, but the latter are far more practical when walking through downtown Chicago in the middle of winter. It always struck me as unfair that men could stride through the snow and slush to the Daley Center, where many civil lawsuits are tried, in sensible shoes and pants and still appear presentable, while I had to make due with skirts and tights and either get ice in my high heels or carry them and change out of boots before walking into the courtroom. (The different standards for a woman’s appearance versus a man’s also result in a drain on women’s time and money, as I noted in The Military, Make Up, and Rereading Katniss.)

In the 2008 campaign season, I suspect Hillary Clinton adopted the pantsuit to try to wear something neutral. So that just like Barack Obama and John McCain and other male candidates, people would pay attention to what she said, not what she wore. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I can’t remember anything said about McCain’s or Obama’s suits during that campaign, but both Clinton and Sarah Palin were criticized for their wardrobes. I don’t believe that reflected intentional bias, but rather that in 2008, there was no neutral business attire for women. Whatever a woman wore–pants, skirts, high neck blouse, scoop neckline, jewelry or not–was and is still today remarkable. A man can wear the same gray pinstriped suit every day of the week, and if he adds a different tie, no one will notice he’s worn the same thing. My most neutral suit is a navy blue skirt suit, but there is no way I could wear it every day without someone noticing. The very sameness would be remarkable.

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In the television show Madam Secretary, fictional Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord used the media obsession with women’s clothes and appearance to her advantage. Throughout the first episode, she resisted the President’s insistence that she get a hair and clothing makeover after taking office. But when she wanted to deflect attention from a negative substantive issue, she decided to get the makeover, telling the press and so ensuring that the top news story about her office would be her style, not the negative issue she wished to bury. (A male critic reviewed this episode and complained about the script, saying it was ridiculous that Madam Secretary didn’t realize she was beautiful and then discovered it at the end, doing an about face on the makeover. Talk about completely missing the point, but that’s a whole other post.) The real former Madam Secretary, too, seems this election season to be looking to turn the focus on her appearance to her advantage. She released on Instagram photos of her pantsuits, including ones that are monochrome, alternating red, white, and blue. So she is getting free publicity simply for changing her clothes.

The comments of the younger journalists, as reported by Peggy Noonan, do give me a little hope. I don’t believe any journalist should stop herself from observing what any candidate is wearing. Nor should anyone be prohibited from writing what she or he believes is newsworthy. But maybe, just maybe, we’re coming closer to a time when what a woman candidate wears will be considered no more newsworthy than what a man wears.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.