It was only a couple of weeks ago that Hillary Clinton officially announced that she would be running for president in 2016. A media frenzy ensued as Hillary’s video was dissected for meaning and her launch through social media critiqued. However, it wasn’t simply Hillary’s message about getting things done and championing the American people that was up for discussion. E! Online quickly published an article titled “Let’s Take a Look Back At Self-Declared ‘Pantsuit Aficionado’ Hilary Clinton’s Colorful Style History.” Style.com demanded Diane Von Furstenberg’s opinion on Hillary’s style choices. And Harper’s Bazaar created an entire slideshow of various runway looks with Hillary’s face superimposed over those of the models. Sure, a bit of policy was discussed, perhaps overshadowed by the current scrutiny given to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal,” but somehow just as much focus seemed to be on what Hillary would be wearing during the race. Speculation has already arisen about who will become her stylist, how much they will be paid, and whether Hillary will go for a complete image makeover in 2016. Yet no one seems to be asking whether Jeb Bush will be getting a makeover. Where are the color-coded charts of Ted Cruz’s suits? Or the dissections of Bernie Sanders’ tie choices?
We all dress with a purpose, whether that purpose be something as simple as comfort or as complicated as being culturally appropriate on a diplomatic mission to a foreign country. The construction of outfits in more delicate situations requires a certain discipline. And for political leaders or persons of stature who are supposed to serve as examples, every situation is delicate. Discipline encompasses the ideas of training and control, and nowhere in fashion can that be seen better than in the carefully-curated dressing of the world’s most powerful. This is particularly the case in the wardrobes of female leaders, whose sartorial choices are often – though arguably unduly – scrutinized as much as their actions and policy proposals. Attention must be given to everything: the hair, the make-up, the accessories, not to mention the outfit itself. They all must be in place and, above all, appropriate. As Sandra Lee Bartky asserts, there is a “growing power of the image in a society increasingly oriented toward the visual media” (107), which means that everyone can now play Fashion Police with Hillary Clinton’s or Kate Middleton’s visual appearance. The digital, image-focused world that we live in indicates that we largely regard how these female leaders aesthetically present themselves as essential to their actual leadership skills. Yet we also have different expectations of women like Clinton or Angela Merkel and women like Middleton or Michelle Obama. With these expectations comes a different sort of power for each group of women, a power that they can greatly exercise through the discipline of their dress.
On one end of the spectrum we have Hillary Clinton, who many view as the generic definition of political “power dressing.” She is known for donning pantsuits of various colors, which have sparked Reddit’s famous “Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Rainbow” meme, but also a steady stream of criticism. Though always appropriate, Hillary’s pantsuits have been given flack for their apparent masculinity, matronliness, and lack of flattering cut (read: lack of feminine discipline). Part of Hillary’s more ‘masculine’ appearance may have to do with her work on Capitol Hill. As Laura Portwood-Stacer mentions in Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, “Angela McRobbie asserts that the style that defines a subculture is often the style of its male members” (62). There is perhaps no place more aggressively male, other than maybe Wall Street, to work in than D.C.’s political subculture. Politics are notoriously known for being predominantly male-occupied and particularly challenging for women to infiltrate. As Portwood-Stacer says, “individual tastes are always conditioned by social structures, which are often inflected by relations of power, hierarchy, and domination” (59). Hillary may want to dress more masculine not only in hopes of shifting focus onto her policies, but also to gain more clout with her male political counterparts. If this is the case, it could be argued that Hillary in fact exercises serious amounts of discipline in her attire. Michel Foucault defines discipline as “a relation of docility-utility” (137). Hillary may be seen as docile in her adherence to the classically masculine appearance of D.C. politics, but by being so, she also transforms her dress into something useful: the power to ‘play with the big boys,’ so to speak. She is not the only one to do so, either. If we look at the style of Angela Merkel, the current and first female Chancellor of Germany, we can see very similar, unassuming pantsuits. Like Clinton, Merkel harnesses the “utility” (Bartky) of her body by concealing it rather than emphasizing it through her clothing. This practice of discipline“turns [the body] into an ‘aptitude,’ a ‘capacity,’” as Foucault would say; this capacity lies in shifting focus away from the body and, hopefully, onto the female leaders’ governing.
On the other side of the spectrum we have women like Kate Middleton. Kate is also a woman of significant social and political prestige. Though she may not be directly involved in government, she is the highest media-covered female face of Great Britain. Yet the way that Kate dresses differs decidedly from how Hillary or Angela dress. Kate, unlike the former Secretary of State and German Chancellor, is constantly present in fashion magazines. She fits Bartky’s description of the “current body of fashion” perfectly: “taut, small-breasted, narrow-hipped, and of a slimness bordering on emaciation” (95). She clearly exercises all of those “peculiarly feminine” disciplines that Bartky criticizes Foucault of ignoring in his work: proper posture, physical exercise to maintain a svelte physique, on-point hair and makeup, and general self-presentation that exhibits “not only constriction, but grace as well, and a certain eroticism restrained by modesty” (98 Bartky). Kate may wear figure-hugging skirts, for example, but these will always be knee-length or longer. If her décolletage is more exposed, the skirt or dress will be floor-length. Society dictates that a princess must be pretty, of course, but not sexy and definitely not provocative in any way. To maintain this perfect balance requires an impressive amount of discipline. Restraint in certain areas (ex. dress length) while cultivation in others (ex. perfect princess locks) is expected of someone in Kate’s position. The reward for such well-executed visual presentation? “Social acceptance, respect, and admiration from one’s peers” (60), says Portwood-Stacer. In short, cultural capital. Kate’s substantial fan base has a lot to do with the way she looks. Women see an influential, beautiful, and sophisticated example in her—characteristics that they celebrate and wish to emulate. Though an unavoidable discipline in dress is imposed on Kate by society, this “discipline can provide the individual upon whom it is imposed with a sense of mastery as well as a secure sense of identity” (Bartky 105). Indeed, Alice Marwick and Brooke Duffy would see Kate as “being self-promotional and turning oneself into a brand” (5). Her style of clothing, hair, and make-up are so associated with her public persona that they have become part of a whole ‘Kate Middleton look.’ Like with other individuals, Kate’s style can be “read and decoded” (Portwood-Stacer 53); as Portwood Stacer says, “one’s social position can be read off the tastes one has cultivated” (59). For example, by wearing Zara, Kate can project the message that she is simply ‘one’ with the British people, even if her title, residence, and obligations say otherwise. This similarly tasteful, feminine political way of dressing can be seen with other women of influence, like Michelle Obama or Queen Rania of Jordan. Both of these women are also frequently applauded for their fashion savvy and emulated for their hair and makeup.
What is it, then, that makes these women of influence fall on opposite ends of the spectrum? Why is a Hillary different from a Kate? What sets apart an Angela from a Michelle? The answer for why these women dress in the disciplined, specific ways that they do lies, I think, in their exact professions. Hillary Clinton was the former Secretary of State under the 2008 Obama administration and now the likely presidential candidate for the 2016 Democratic ticket. Angela Merkel is the current Chancellor of Germany. Michelle Obama is FLOTUS at the moment. And Kate Middleton is the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Britain’s second-in-line to the throne. What is most significant here? The women who are occupying positions usually reserved for men are the ones dressing more ‘businesslike’ and ‘masculine,’ while the women whose influence comes significantly from the fact that their husbands are powerful are the ones dressing more ‘fashionably’ and ‘feminine.’ There is a “complex narrative” being “perform[ed]” here (Ford 6). Each of these women is indeed dressing in the way that might be typically expected of her position. There is a clear code being adhered to for each of them, rules of conduct that to an extent dictate how these women should individually present themselves to the now always-watching world. So yes, as Bartky observes, “on the one hand, discipline is something imposed on a subject” (103). But, Bartky says, “discipline can be sought voluntarily as well” (103). Michelle and Kate dress the way they do because it is their job to connect with the people of their respective countries, and dressing fashionably is undoubtedly one way to seriously engage with at least the female population. Hillary and Angela dress the way they do because, at the end of the day, it is they who are making the critical political choices for their countries, not Michelle or Kate. Hence, they dress more conservatively to bring attention not just to their jobs, but to their abilities to do those jobs well (and just as well as men). This is not to say that either group of women is more or less powerful than the other. Their positions simply afford them different types of power, which, in this media-oriented day and age, can certainly be enhanced by the way they dress. And for their style to be truly effective, discipline is not only desirable, but indispensable.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. Ed. Weitz, Rose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 93-111. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “Docile Bodies.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 135-141. Print.
Ford, Tanisha C. “Selma Costumes Reveal Class and Consciousness of the Movement.” The Root. The Root, 7 January 2015. Web. <http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2015/01/_selma_costumes_reveal_class_and_consciousness_of_the_movement.html>
Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “‘I’m not joining your world’: Performing political dissent through spectacular self-presentation.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Postigo, Hector. “Podcast and Dialogue: With Alice Marwick and Brooke Duffy.” Culture Digitally. National Science Foundation, 26 March 2013. Web. <http://culturedigitally.org/2013/03/podcast-and-dialogue-with-alice-marwick-and-brooke-duffy/>