On the 5th February 2018, dozens of Democratic women made a coordinated fashion statement by wearing white clothing at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. Intended to serve as a visual tribute to women’s rights campaigners, the statement was organised by the House Democratic Women’s Working Group – who were also responsible for encouraging both male and female members of congress to wear black clothing at the 2017 State of the Union address to show solidarity with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. This year’s white theme was selected due to the colour’s its association with suffrage movements. As well as being one of the official colours of England’s suffrage movement (alongside purple and green), American suffragists were well known for wearing white dresses during demonstrations and parades which were meant to make the women look non-threatening while also serving to deflect claims that women’s rights campaigners were aggressive or masculine.
While this kind of campaign demonstrates that female politicians sometimes effectively use clothing to send messages, the relationship between fashion and politics is not always positive. The media, other politicians, and the public, have all been known to focus on the clothing worn by female politicians at the expense of their ideas. Such was the case in 2007, when a Washington Post article covering Hillary Clinton talking to the Senate about the cost of higher education was titled “Hillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip into New Neckline Territory”. Rather than cover the contents of the speech given, the article speaks at great length about Clinton’s outfit, describing how “there wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was”. A further example can be found when the (then) French minister for housing, Cécile Duflot, was catcalled as she stood to speak at the National Assembly in 2012, simply because she was wearing a floral dress. Equally, on the day that Theresa May became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2016, the Daily Mail newspaper ran a prominent article which did not discuss May’s political beliefs but rather compared her clothes to those worn by Hillary Clinton, a comparison based entirely on the “remarkable coincidence” that both politicians had worn different yellow and black outfits on the same day.
There is obviously a distinct difference between the way that the fashion choices made by male and female political figures are treated. It is certainly true that Bill Clinton was criticised for expensive haircuts, while Barack Obama’s tan-coloured suit caused “outrage”, and Jeremy Corbyn’s high-street brand suits have received widespread coverage on several occasions. However, these examples are the exception rather than the rule, and women in politics are undoubtedly held to a different standard on their appearance than men are. Specifically, the media and popular culture often portray female political figures wearing revealing or otherwise inappropriate clothing in a way that happens incredibly rarely with men. For example, both this political cartoon and this political cartoon portray a highly sexualised Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel respectively, while this portrait by street artist Loretto features a scantily clad Theresa May. Additionally, it is important to note that women from ethnic minority backgrounds often face even more extensive, and often racialised, criticism of their appearance. Perhaps most famously, Michelle Obama was referred to as an “ape in heels” in 2016, while many other women of colour have also faced criticism for their hairstyling or for wearing headscarves.
Not only do women’s appearances receive much more scrutiny and criticism than those of their male counterparts, women are also often expected to dress according to standards which do not apply to men. This is partly due to the prevalence of restrictive rules regarding appearance which exist within many institutions. Historically politics has been dominated by men, and so dress codes and clothing norms were almost never written with women in mind. This is still partly the case, with a 2017 study finding that an average of only 27.9% of parliamentarians in European countries were female, with this figure dropping to 26.5% when the Nordic countries were excluded. However, women are becoming increasingly visible within politics, and especially within Europe where multiple countries have female leaders. Therefore, these rules and expectations are being continually challenged. US Senators Carol Moseley Brown and Barbara Mikulski were the subjects of intense press coverage in 1993, when they broke rules which banned women from wearing trousers on the Senate floor. However, in response this rule was amended later that same year to allow women to wear trousers on the floor as long as they were also wearing a jacket. Similarly, in 2017 multiple women removed from Speakers Lobby outside the House Chamber because they were wearing sleeveless tops or dresses, as these were deemed to have broken rules on appropriate attire. The resulting backlash has triggered widespread conversations about improving dress codes to make them more inclusive.
Personal style can project political values, for instance it is often a marker of social values. Much like the choice of the US Suffragists to wear white dresses, Margaret Thatcher was well known for wearing pussy bow blouses to “soften” her harsh image and project a conservative femininity. However, women involved in politics often choose to wear neutral business clothing, with the understanding that wearing “normal” clothes provides more scope for criticism and with the belief that consistency will limit the time the media spends focusing on physical appearances. In particular, senior female politicians (including Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Theresa May) often elect to wear pantsuits, which are often viewed as the garment least likely to offend. This is often called “power dressing”, as these outfits are meant to project the image of a career woman and allow women to assert their right to power, demonstrating how professional and masculine are often interpreted as being synonymous within male-dominated professions such as politics. Regardless of what they wear, there is never the less still inequality for women in these professions. The term “pantsuit” itself is only used for women, and suggests that these outfits are not real suits, and by extension that these women are not equal to their male counterparts. This attitude to women’s professional dress is perhaps best demonstrated by controversial remarks made by Tim Gunn (a fashion expert on the American television show Project Runway) during 2011, in which he called Hillary Clinton “confused about her gender” because of her preference for what he described as “big, baggy menswear tailored pantsuits”.
The disproportionate focus on women’s clothing when reporting on political figures is a symptom of the fact that women still often struggle to be taken seriously in traditionally male-dominated fields. However, as women become more visible in politics, this scrutiny of their appearances is being increasingly challenged. Clothes are an undeniably important part of self-presentation and can be important indicators of social values, plus some people simply enjoy choosing clothes, doing their makeup and styling their hair. Rather than entirely preventing discussions on clothing, equality would mean that both men’s and women’s clothes would only be discussed as one part of a wider part of their self-presentation as leaders and public figures. The story of progress is so often shaped by young people, and we have a responsibility to work towards the positive social changes which will make politics (and the wider world) a more inclusive place. If we continue to challenge these negative discussions, hopefully the future will no longer be a place where the appearance of female political figures is discussed at the expense of their ideas.