Politics of the Pantsuit

Think of all the things that politicians use to communicate to their audience: speeches, slogans, questionable tweets, ‘Make America Great Again’ caps that aren’t actually made in America, and highly similar caps sold by the opposing party that are made in America.

The presidential campaign currently rampaging its way across America and unfortunately, the world, has brought with it history-making candidates, PR nightmares and more attention to what nominees are wearing than ever before.

Image, literally the way one looks, can be both the quietest and loudest form of communication in politics. It’s personal branding, and can even support and represent a politician’s agenda. Take Obama, whose suits are made by a Brooklyn-based tailor and therefore show his support for sustaining US jobs.

Both Trump and Hillary Clinton have used clothing as a form of branding throughout the rollercoaster presidential campaign. Sticking to her consistent uniform of mutli-coloured pantsuits, much of Hillary’s campaign trail has been focused on exactly that: what she’s wearing. With news hitting that US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was advising Clinton on her wardrobe choices, as much emphasis has been placed on the length of her pant hem as her view on university tuition reforms.

Such attention has followed Clinton since her first stint in the White House as First Lady, where her love for scrunchies and pearl necklaces were first well documented. Although her hair is no longer at an acceptable length to rock a scrunchie, the scrutiny has been redirected and amplified ten fold throughout her presidential campaign. Where Clinton’s seen to be wearing a $12,000 Armani jacket while speaking on income inequality, she’s described as ‘disconnected’ from the female population. A recent study even shows that any discussion surrounding what a female politician is wearing, positive or negative, is detrimental to her vote.

Trump, on the other hand, treats $6,000 suits from one of the world’s most prestigious couture houses, Brioni, as a standard uniform. The suits were once gifted, but maybe the one redeeming factor in Trump’s campaign is that the fact that he now pays for them. Or, rather, those who donate to his campaign do.

Along with Brioni, other brands like Hugo Boss are also regularly seen on the Republican nominee: both European brands that aren’t contributing to ‘Making America Great Again’. Politicians in the US are generally expected to wear clothing produced locally, but more thought throughout Trump’s campaign has been directed towards building a wall and getting someone else to pay for it. Criticism often falls to his wife, and her similar affinity for European brands and questionable speeches.

Forgetting for a moment the severe difference between the coverage on Hillary’s appearance in comparison to the continuous fake-tan-fake-hair running joke often thrown towards Trump, the message behind Clinton’s outfit at the DNC was actually historically important.

In accepting her party’s presidential nomination and revealing a fascination with oversized red and blue balloons, Clinton wore a pristine white (you guessed it) pantsuit. While her acceptance speech stood for much more than what she was wearing, such an occasion meant all communication, verbal and non-verbal, was of significance.

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Having fun while breaking glass ceiling!

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Much balloon fun

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Making it rain

Her white suit made her appear polished and pristine, and already associated with the White House. At a deeper level though, the colour choice nodded to the historical narrative of women breaking through glass ceilings. The suffragette movement in the US and UK often saw women wear purple, white, gold and green when politically protesting. White was especially worn by suffragettes to symbolize purity, and carve a clear and recognizable political identity.

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Suffragettes in 1914, protesting in white

The colour white after all has connotations of virtue and purity, often associated with being ‘the good guy’. Her appearance literally spelt ‘heroine’ visually, and made reference to feminism without being obviously feminine in say, a dress or skirt.

Hillary’s speech spoke to the future of women in power, but her suit referenced the past struggles. The significance of the colour represented the significance of those who fought long before her, and the white suit especially symbolized the purity and quality of her purpose; to become the first female president of the United States. Another female politician who also made the connection to the suffragette movement was Geraldine Ferraro, who accepted her vice presidential nomination in 1984, in a white pantsuit.

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Ferraro in 1984

Her speech literally, and her pantsuit figuratively, directly addressed her position as the first female presidential candidate: a woman working to clear the way for others to follow.

Images of Hillary accepting her nomination seemed to resonate an untold emotion with women all over the world, one that sets cultural tones deeper than that of an appreciation for a good pantsuit. That feeling of emotion associated with Hillary maybe comes from a place otherwise unknown to women: being able to identify with the possibility of a female leader of the western world.

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Hillary accepting her presidential nomination

That culture has been exacerbated and encouraged by social media’s role in her campaign, paired with social media’s role in documenting fashion. Aside from Hillary’s self-proclaimed title of ‘pantsuit aficionado’ listed in her Twitter biography, Instagram accounts like @hillarystreetstyle have popped up.

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Hillary: first female presidential candidate, original crusader of lemon chiffon turtlenecks

The account compares Hillary’s getups from events like the Met Gala in 2001 and the UN Conference for Women in 1995, to the likes of Beyoncé, Madonna, Rihanna and Sarah-Jessica Parker. The owner of the account aims to portray Hillary’s swag as elegant but authoritative, and wants to take ownership over the politically driven style choices instead of allowing it to become negatively described.

Hillary’s campaign itself has seemingly (read: obviously) focused on her title, role, place, and position as a woman. Even Hillary’s merchandise screams ‘I am a woman’, and are probably aimed for young girls to imagine that one day too, their face will be on a shirt accompanied with a decisive ‘Yaaas’ plastered across it.

Clothing, particularly in the political realm, is a form of communication, and Clinton’s documented struggles to convey warmth and fun in her campaign is somewhat combatted by her brighter-than-the-sun getups.

Instead of being offended about the intense focus on female politician’s clothing choices, maybe the question mark should lie on the fact that women in power can’t be well versed in say, nuclear codes and foreign policy and fashion: that interest in clothing somehow cancels out any iota of intelligence.

Much like a suit symbolises a man’s place in executive or power, the closets of female politicians like Hillary Clinton convey a point about that position, and the politics she engages in shouldn’t detract from her choice in pantsuit. Although, maybe there’s still a ways to go before we can completely accept image and clothing as a staple instead of a shame when it comes to women in power. The owner of the @hillarystreetstyle account herself chooses to remain anonymous, citing her career as a lawyer in a conservative office environment as the reason for her secrecy:

‘I don’t think they would see it as if, you know, I was translating The Odyssey for fun in my spare time.’

Hillary might.

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Also published on Medium.

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