Fashion: A help or a hindrance for women in politics?


Gracie Daw explores the double standards women face in the political spotlight

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Image by Barbara Kinney

By Gracie Daw

It is extremely common for female politicians’ clothing to be scrutinised in politics articles. After big events, such as President Joe Biden’s inauguration, there was an influx of articles detailing the clothing that women wore. It is less common for men’s clothing to be mentioned. Women must meet standards that simply don’t exist for men. They cannot just throw on a suit and tie and turn up to an event; they must plan their outfit, ensure that it does not clash with another attendee, then spend hours on the day getting ready, all in the hope that nobody feels the need to comment negatively on what they look like.

Hillary Clinton calculated that she spent 600 hours or 25 days of her 2016 campaign having hair and make-up done. This is so that nobody reported that she looked too tired, too miserable, or too old to be President. This was not time that she wanted to spend, she would have preferred to spend the time in Wisconsin or one of the other swing states which cost her the election. However, it is time she had to spend in order to meet the criteria of a woman running for elected office.

It is a careful balancing act because women cannot be seen in anything too expensive, too out of their age range (whether it makes them look too young or too old) or too inaccessible. In 2016, Theresa May wore a pair of leather trousers, costing £995 for an interview with The Sunday Times. In the weeks following, May’s trousers became the centre of a media frenzy, in which many were calling her disconnected from those she governs. However, her predecessor, David Cameron, was regularly seen wearing suits which cost upward of £3,100, and this was rarely, if ever, commented on. Women in politics have to perform a careful balancing act when deciding what to wear, something that is far less familiar to their male counterparts.

Despite the differences in reporting of what men and women in politics look like, fashion can be used by women to communicate their message. The most prominent example of this is Melania Trump’s infamous jacket, which had the message, “I don’t really care. Do u?” on the back. This is a clear example of a verbal message being communicated through fashion, but women often choose to convey more subtle messages through this medium too. Reporters covering Melania Trump knew more about her from what she was wearing then from anything she did or did not say. On the day her husband left office, she was seen in two contrasting outfits. The first was an all-black ensemble which she wore leaving the White House for the last time. When she arrived in Florida, she emerged in a long dress with a bright orange print. For those watching, it was pure symbolism – Melania Trump viewed the DC portion of her life to be over.

Others choose to represent their political views through their fashion. Many women in US politics wear all-white at major political events as a nod to the suffragists who campaigned for women to vote. Michelle Obama often wore items which elevated minority voices and gave designers a career opportunity that they would not otherwise receive. She chose many items from young female entrepreneurs, Black-owned labels, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Women can take advantage of the coverage of their appearance by using it to build their own personal brand and to be noticed. Theresa May is known for her shoes and Hillary Clinton for her pantsuits. This helped form an identity around these women which is necessary in a political campaign. Furthermore, Angela Merkel used colour effectively to ensure that the eye is drawn to her in photos. At the G20 summit in 2017, she is seen in a bright red jacket, whereas other leaders are wearing much darker colours. For many the view is that if women in politics are going to be covered for what they wear, they may as well achieve something from it.

Women have to meet standards in society which simply do not exist for men. For women in politics, looking the part is a key step in being elected to play the part. These standards can be used to the advantage of women though, as they give them coverage, advance their political message, and help them build their brand. So, is fashion a help or a hindrance for women in politics?

Image credit: Presidential Press and Information Office4854