Monday, January 22, 2007

Fashion, Gender and Politics

Hillary Clinton announced her intention to be the next U.S. President on Saturday. She released a web video of herself sitting on a sofa telling us her plans. Predictably, a number of commentators have nit-picked the style choices she made in the video. Just as predictably, a number of commentators have moaned and groaned that if she were a man, no one would dare criticize her garments, her hair or the set dressing of the video. So far as I know, no one has pointed out the odd, hypnotic camera work employed in the video.

Anyway, we hear both ends of this fashion versus substance argument every time a woman rises to prominence, whether she’s a politician or a business leader. The second observation, that women alone are scrutinized for what they wear or how they cut their hair usually goes unchallenged. That’s too bad, because it’s completely false. Powerful men get picked on and praised for their dress and comportment just as often as women do.

Think of it the next time you see a picture of George Bush clearing brush in Crawford, Texas. Think of it the next time you go through the Reagan archives and find a picture of that president doing the same thing. Sleeves rolled up, cowboy hat propped on their heads, how does this differ from a Calvin Klein fashion shoot? Are they actually doing work? Does George Bush really need to clear his own brush? Did Reagan? What’s more, did they need to do it while a scrum of photographers followed them around?

On a more strictly sartorial bent, one of my first political memories is of Mike Dukakis addressing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the blizzard of 1978. He appeared on TV wearing a sweater rather than a suit. It was a canny political move, one that allied him with voters buried in snow. No one wore a suit during that week of February 1978. The gesture of the sweater was acknowledged by commentators at the time, and remembered for years later. What’s most surprising is that such a savvy dresser was largely undone as a presidential candidate when he was photographed sticking his helmeted egghead out of a tank.

When William Weld ran for Senate against John Kerry in the 1990s, his advisors had all the exterior pockets on his suit jackets sewn shut. Bill Weld jams his fists into his jacket pockets when he speaks. It looks childish, so his advisors removed the option. I do not know whether his advisors also carried his cell phone for him.

Bill Clinton was roundly ridiculed for his $200 haircuts.

People often wondered openly if Reagan dyed his brill-creamed hair.

Barak Obama is often praised for his overt sexiness. Part of this sex appeal lay in the timber of his voice. The richness of Senator Obama's voice may be caused by his nasty smoking habit. Slate recently parsed the Senator's quandary at length. Regardless of its cause, what does a man’s vocal quality have to do with his ability to govern? How does it differ from a woman’s hotness or the length of her skirt?

John Kerry was lampooned continually for allowing himself to be photographed in bicycle shorts. Of course there was also this unfortunate picture, courtesy of NASA.

And then there’s the shirt that Lamar Alexander wore every day during his campaign for president, and Jerry Brown’s turtleneck.

This sort of superficial discussion isn’t limited to politicians. Douglas MacArthur fashioned his own uniform. David Boies, the power attorney who represented Al Gore during the Florida recount always wears Lands End suits. This is remarked upon in every article published about him.

Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, serious serious authors, are more famous now for their pimp garb than for their prose. Neither man complains.

Of course any discussion of a lady's style goes hand in hand with nasty remarks about her figure. This too must be a cross born by prominent women and not men, right? Wrong. Al Gore’s fluctuating weight is remarked upon as much as Kirstie Alley’s, even when he's talking about global warming. So is Bill Clinton’s. George Bush, despite his vigorous reputation, gets a little sensitive about his girth from time to time.

Do I really need to go on? Can we now drop the whole, “they wouldn’t say that if she was a man” routine?

No comments: