The Discipline of Power Dressing: What Being a Hillary VS Being a Kate Means in Terms of Political Style

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?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon her departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli,  Libya

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.

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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.

   

-Andrea Cihlarova

Works Cited:

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&gt;

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/&gt;

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Peacocking at Milk Studios: When NYFW Becomes About What Is Off the Runway

JOYRICH LA at Milk MADE         unnamed-1

It was three weeks ago, in the midst of New York Fashion Week, that the weather decided to issue a challenge to Manhattan. The city’s streets remained oddly empty for most of those seven days, with the snow and blustering winds keeping its residents snuggled up inside. However, there was no respite for the fashion crowd. Rather than arctic explorers or winter sports enthusiasts (the only people for whom it would have been appropriate to be outside at the time), it was editors, models, designers, photographers, and influential guests that took to the streets. While the rest of Manhattan hibernated, Lincoln Center and Chelsea Piers, amongst several other locations, remained abuzz with activity.

One of these other locations was Milk Studios in Meatpacking. Thursday night of NYFW saw the media headquarters’ doors open and crowded for Milk MADE Fashion Week, its seasonal showcase of up-and-coming talent. MADE Fashion Week offered designers such as Isa Arfen and brands like JOYRICH LA a platform to display their creations if they hadn’t yet established themselves or did not have the funds to show during official NYFW. That night, the cavernous interiors of Milk Studios, usually used for shooting fashion editorials, were transformed into themed rooms, each dedicated to a specific designer. Models posed and lounged in the clothing on show, while the fashion crowd flitted around, sipping on house-made cocktails, picking up free copies of Nylon, and listening to local DJs spin tunes. There was a clear ambiance to the whole event: this was cool fashion, a means to counter the sometimes pretentiously viewed Lincoln Center shows. You could walk from room to room freely, socializing both in person and on social media platforms while taking in the individual presentations.

The relaxed setup was no accident. There was a clear code to the whole event, meant to be read in a specific way by the guests consuming it through their attendance. As Bourdieu says in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, “consumption is…a stage in a process of communication; that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposed practical or explicit mastery of a cipher code” (2). The main spectacle was meant to be the fashion presentations, of course. But that was hardly the only thing, other than the cocktails, being consumed here. As a result of the very informal nature of the event, with people walking from room to room, there was ample opportunity to consume what other guests were wearing as well. Unlike at a runway show, where the focus is clearly directed towards the designer’s collection (aided by factors like dimmed lights contrasting with the luminous runway, the audience sitting while the models stand, and the central position of the catwalk itself), here everyone was looking at everyone else and decoding what others were wearing.

At one point, a woman glided into one of the rooms wearing an oversized coat made of cobalt blue ostrich feathers. All eyes turned to her, of course. The presentations’ audience became her audience. Equally well-dressed women seemed to nod in approval, but there were also a couple of eye rolls in the crowd. These mixed reactions very much reflect Bourdieu’s statement on works of art, which have “meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded” (2). An ostrich coat’s identity as a work of art is debatable, but opinions on it can definitely establish a taste hierarchy as well. People who saw only the cobalt blue feathers might have classified the coat as overtly flashy and the unnatural color as tasteless. People with greater knowledge would have recognized the feathers as ostrich and the color as a result of an intricate hand-dying process, resulting in respect for the craftsmanship and a certain awareness of how expensive the coat probably was. Even more fashion-aware people would have recognized the coat as last season’s Fendi, which would have lead to even more conclusions: its wearer was wealthy, probably worked in fashion, and was aware of current trends. These levels of knowledge divided the coat’s observers by their aesthetic taste: they “distinguish[ed] themselves by the distinctions they [made], between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar” (Bourdieu 6).

Fred Davis, in Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?, also supports Bourdieu’s view of clothing as a fashion-code, although he describes it as an “incipient or quasi-code” because the “meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations of the code’s key terms….are forever shifting or ‘in process’” (149). The fabulous woman’s ostrich coat meant very different things to her varying ‘code interpreters’ that night at MADE. Some clearly saw it as a wasteful splurge or even as unethical. Others saw it as a fantastic fashion statement. These views in turn changed how each individual saw the woman herself. For some she became an extravagant airhead, probably funded by a rich older husband. For others she became a strong, independent working woman with a firm grip on personal style. As Davis confirms regarding the clothing fashion-code, “there is considerable variability in how its constituent symbols are understood and appreciated by different social strata and taste groupings” (151). This variability is defined in Davis’ term of “undercoding.” The signifier’s and signified’s relationship is unstable because there are so many different possible interpretations of it (as can be seen in the differing views on the woman’s ostrich coat). Of course, these meanings shift even more when put into a different context. Blue ostrich feather outerwear is eye-catching but still acceptable at a significant NYFW event. A small farm town in Oklahoma? Not so much. The same message cannot be interpreted in all contexts, which is what renders the clothing fashion-code so “context-dependent” (Davis 151).

The ostrich woman wasn’t the only one vying for fashion attention and, hopefully, approval that night. Though the weather outside was hovering at freezing temperatures, once everyone pulled off their puffers, it was clear that not even a snowpocalypse could stop the New York fashion crowd from pulling out all the stops. This was pure communication through clothing. In his work Fashion and City Life, Wilson says that in “the city the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives through the manipulation of self” (138). These Milk MADE presentations were seen as a major NYFW event that attracted fashion heavy-hitters. If one was ever going to dress to the tens, this was that time. Especially because most people spent much of the event on their phones, live-tweeting and Instagramming the designers’ collections: if one didn’t verbally communicate with the other guests, at least one could communicate through clothing. The point here wasn’t to blend in, but to stand out and give “clues” about oneself instead. Many of the messages were in line with the ones discussed in Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence. Luxury and leisure—both indicators of a wealthy, upper echelons lifestyle—were out in full force through expensive textiles, furs, and distinct designer accessories. As Han, Nunes, and Drèze say, “what confers status is the evidence of wealth, which requires its wasteful exhibition” (18). The accumulation of wealth could be observed through these designer goods and furs, for example, just like it could be seen through the mysterious woman’s cobalt blue ostrich. Ostrich feathers are by no means practical: clothing made of them can be only worn minimally, as the feathers quickly fall off. Wearing them says that one has not only the time to curate a one-off wardrobe, but can afford to own clothing worn only once in a while (a very couture approach to time and consumption). The ostrich coat, as many of the other outfits spotted that night, possessed no explicit branding. But because the MADE shows were a high-end fashion event, the crowd that was being communicated to through what one wore was assumed to be ‘in-the-know.’ In fact, one could argue that a greater power was gleaned from the fact that the crowd recognized luxurious clothing without the mark, a power shared both by the wearer (I’m so wealthy that I don’t have to advertise it) and the observers (I’m so knowledgeable that I don’t need a mark to recognize the luxurious brand). The wearer and the observer acknowledged each other through their clothes and by communicating in such a subtle way, reinforced the aura of exclusivity that surrounds high fashion.

In conclusion, what becomes obvious from events such as Milk MADE Fashion Week is that the clothes on the runway—or in this case in the studio—are as important as the clothes off of it. A more casual, relaxed setting meant to encourage socializing only increased the pressure to make an impression because you knew that even if people weren’t talking to you, they’d be looking at you. The more exclusive the event, the more important the clothing fashion-code you were trying to communicate. Yet clothes are susceptible to undercoding as well, as we have learned from Davis. Thus it became even more precarious what you chose to wear since the outfit’s codes could have been misinterpreted. Cobalt blue ostrich coat: fashionable power woman or socialite snob? Even a Parvenus like the ostrich woman can communicate a mixed message (although her focus was most likely “to associate with [her] own kind,” as Han, Nunes, and Drèze would assume).

Fashion-centric events like MADE are where conspicuous consumption hits an all time high. We peacock with what we choose to consume in an attempt to reassure ourselves and others that we are meant to be there, that we, too, are on the list. Of course, that is only a percent of the motivation behind our outfits. Based on some of the outrageous wear I saw at MADE, I still believe that much of fashion is essentially about creative play, even if it can sometimes be construed as snobby or exclusive. The message being sent isn’t always issuing a challenge. Sometimes it is simply paying homage to the industry and the part one plays in it, even if it is through blue ostrich feathers.

[All photos are my own]

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction and Chapter 1: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. 1-209.

Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?. Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. Print. 147-58.

Han, Young Jee, Joseph Nunes, Xavier Dreze. Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence. United States: Journal of Marketing, 2010. Print. 15-30.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Fashion and City Life. Adorned In Dreams Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom: I.B. Taurus and Co, 2003. Print. 134-289.