Hillary's "Softer side of Sears" Summer Wardrobe

Several months ago a friend watched Bill Richardson, whom she had known for years and was supporting for the Democratic nomination, on a Sunday morning talk show and noticed that his buttoned jacket strained against his chubby belly. My friend had been bemoaning Governor Richardson's generally weak showing on the national stage; the Sunday sartorial indignity pushed her into action. She changed her support to Hillary Clinton.

I give you this incident as a way of putting the recent brouhaha over Senator Clinton's summer fashion choices in a larger, gender-neutral context. To tell you the truth, I had not intended to touch this subject with a ten-foot pole--ever since the first HP bloggers who ventured thus were slapped around by readers. But Hillary's recent appearances as a "person of cleavage" (to quote Judith Warner in the NYT) are worthy of mention--and I screw up my courage to step forward with the braver HP bloggers to say so--if for no other reason than her scoop-neck and V-neck tops help us to read the runes on her campaign.

First of all, let me confess that I love clothes. It's taken me a long time to find a sense of style--many fashion mistakes along the way--and to build a wardrobe. Therefore, given my personal predilictions, I was struck in June by Senator Clinton's appearances in a lemon yellow pants suit and a lime green skirt suit, respectively. I thought she had given up the Arkansas palette. I assumed that her New York look, adopted in her first New York campaign, was a perfect fit. The array of dark suits, well-tailored, mostly black and gray, flattered her, not least because they set off her marvelous hair color and cut. Her new style said something positive and true about her. For the first time, Hillary Clinton was dressing as herself.

Practically speaking, it's hot in Iowa and South Carolina in the summer. And I can tell you from personal experience that it's hard to find a cool travel wardrobe in the bi-coastal dun shades of choice. American designers make summer clothes either in the right color and wrong fabric (heavy and hot), or the right fabric (Sea Island cotton, cotton gauze, handkerchief linen, seersucker, pique) in a hideous cut. After years of looking, nevertheless, I've managed to assemble a good summer travel wardrobe. I've largely given up brights, however, ever since I realized that older white women look better in black or pale, with just a hint of color.

So what can we conclude about Candidate Clinton's move back into color? Likely, she has neither my time nor fashionista inclination to assemble a better summer look. Hence the coral sweater and matching coral tee shirt whose scoop neck gave a photographer in Iowa the opportunity to aim from above and get a cleavage shot. Hence the yellow and green suits. I think we see in Hillary's "softer side of Sears" summer wardrobe the counter to her Lady Macbeth image. For surely the clothes are a conscious choice to re-work Hillary as the feminine and therefore (presumably) more empathetic figure the campaign assumes heartlanders want to see. Here, however, the campaign may have made one of its few mistakes to date. I bet that the cleavage (Iowa in one outfit, before the Senate in another) caught them by surprise. Light knit can do that to you.

More importantly, the new pastels add just the note of dissonance that the Clinton campaign is in other ways working to erase. This dissonance tells me that Hillary's people are still unsure how to present her; in this uncertainty is an otherwise well-run machine's weakness. For Hillary Clinton is not the soft, sweet, motherly type. If she wins the presidency, it will be precisely because that is what she is not. Americans are searching for the best candidate to get us out of the mess in Iraq. Probably, most folks are envisioning a leader clear-eyed, informed, judicious, and cold enough to make the hard choices. If we ever were interested in Hillary Clinton's cookie baking, that day has long come and gone.