In this month's Vogue, Editor in Chief Anna Wintour expressed astonishment and chagrin that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton declined to appear the fashion magazine's pages, for "fear of looking too feminine."
"The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying," she says in her editor's letter. "Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men."
"Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment," she adds, and suggests an array of "pretty" and "niftily tailored" Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta suits "for Senator Clinton's consideration."
From a certain point of view, maybe Wintour is right. In recent weeks, I've been talking to some of my female contemporaries about why many women of our generation do not identify with Senator Clinton.
"We just don't fashion ourselves in the same way anymore," said one friend, a seriously ambitious and seasoned journalist. "Women like Hillary imitated men to get ahead, and now we know that we don't want to do that anymore."
It sounds like some people indeed want Clinton to do a little "feminizing," a point underscored by her teary-eyed moment in New Hampshire weeks ago. This evidence of "feminine" softness may have earned her that state's primary by garnering the empathies of her female contemporaries, whereas her usual "masculine" demeanor did nothing to sway the hearts of women in Iowa.
Clinton has shown her feminine side in Vogue before, in her role as a first lady and wronged-wife-on-the-mend. But things are different now that she's an elected official, opting for the highest office in the country. "Feminizing" a female politician's image is a very dangerous line to tread, one that could miserably backfire - and likely would. As far as being fashionable and feminine, women politicians are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
You wear a pants suit to show that you're in control. And along come the accusations that you're overly masculine, that you're playing a role, that you're frumpy.
Fine. So you spice it up, wear skirts, maybe a daring rope of pearls. Lo and behold: the press sneers about your fat ankles or your cleavage, which will inevitably attract more viewers/readers than your plan to reduce the deficit.
Not exactly credibility-enhancing stuff.
Especially in political D.C., where fashionable femininity and ambition are akin to an oil-and-water cocktail. Fashion in these circles: a post-it-note stuck to a woman's forehead proclaiming: Out Shopping.
I remember years ago, when now-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was featured in Vogue. It was an intelligent feature, focusing on Rice's rise to power from modest roots in a segregated town. Rice, an accomplished pianist, posed for photos while seated at her piano in a ballgown. Vogue called her a "White House rarity: a cabinet member with style."
I worked in a D.C. newsroom when that photo came out, and God Almighty - the ridicule that many of my colleagues throughout the city heaped on that woman. They called the feature vain, preposterous, credibility-killing, ill-advised; they hooted for weeks.
And it was an important lesson to me: that maybe women shouldn't be hanging up the blue power-suits just yet. We've made many advances, but let's not delude ourselves: the world still has very masculine associations with success and leadership.
Especially in the political realm, which, frankly, is still one big fat cigar-smoke-filled mine-is-bigger-than-yours boys' club. In this realm, a well-dressed, feminine woman is arm-candy, not Commander in Chief.
Under these circumstances, a pair of wobbly Manolos is hardly sufficient armor to battle your way through.
Back to the Rice/Vogue appearance. Consider this: Rice wasn't even an elected politician - who are most susceptible to popular opinion. My guess is that Anna Wintour doesn't spend a lot of time in Ohio, or let's say, Nebraska. Fashion and elite fashion bibles like Vogue are anathema for much of the electorate. This is definitely not America's finest hour in terms of our Everyman national aesthetic, which gets more slovenly and casual by the day. The masses have to relate to their candidates, they have to see themselves in those campaigners. And populism abounds in the language of campaigns this time around. As a female candidate, it's safer to look "nice", not "glamorous."
In other words: fashion is not Middle America, and Middle America elects presidents.
The only time that modern America has truly tolerated - worshipped, in fact - fashion in the White House was during the reign of Jacqueline Kennedy. And I'm willing to bet that's because she was famously apolitical in her role, calculatedly involved in pretty cultural projects and raising her photogenic family.
"If you bungle raising your children, nothing else much matters in life," she once said.
Perhaps not words you'd hear from Hillary Clinton.
And here's the catch-22: many voters want to hear those sorts of words from her, to prove that Clinton is "feminine" and accessible and vulnerable.
Wait - suddenly we want a potential leader of the free world to be accessible and vulnerable? Like hell, we do.
In any case, who is demanding that John McCain or Barack Obama to get in touch with their feminine sides? Who's telling Rudy Giuliani to buy a few new suits and ties?
(Do I hear the sound of crickets?)
Hillary doesn't need to appear in Vogue again. She needs to watch the scene in Mommie Dearest in which Faye Dunaway-as-Joan Crawford sits at the head a huge board table of men who are trying to evict her from the board of Pepsi Cola.
"Don't fuck with me, fellas," she snarls. "This ain't my first time at the rodeo."
Incidentally, I believe Dunaway wore a navy pantsuit in that scene.
Special thanks to E. A. Hanks.
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