10/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Right To Choose...What To Wear

I grew up in DC -- land of suits, khakis and alarming pastels -- and I've always fought for a more fashion-forward capital. However, after three years in style-crazed New York, I've decided to defend a woman politician's right to choose her attire -- be it a pantsuit or Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress. What happens to a woman's body (with respect to both her health and her garments) is her decision, regardless of pressures stemming from political norms or an ever-snarky blogosphere.

This is why I am speaking out on behalf of the "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit," a term proudly pronounced by Senator Hillary Clinton during her widely praised speech at the Democratic National Convention on August 26th. A quick perusal of the Web reveals style writers who desperately want a woman politician who is what might be called a sex-and-the-city candidate: a trendy heroine of a public figure who looks fierce and fabulous as she casts her vote in the House or the Senate.

I have a reality check for these oft-disappointed scribes: dream on. Female politicians have many goals. Being a style icon doesn't always rank high on the to-do list. And why should it?

There aren't many women in public service who have managed to bridge the gap between tireless constituent advocate and fashionista extraordinaire. And they shouldn't have to. I prefer my politicians smart, not necessarily well-dressed. This is not to say I won't laud a woman (or a man) who looks particularly sharp.

My focus, however, is on politicians -- not designers. There is an argument to be made that first ladies -- unlike women elected to public office -- are fair game for style columns. Instead, they have the unfortunate burden of having to remind us of the most appealing aspects of our moms, third grade teachers, best friends, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and muffin-bearing neighbors from down the block. And despite griping on the right about her supposed lack of patriotism, Michelle Obama has looked every bit the part, adding her own modern and relevant edge. Her outfits push the limits of oft-dowdy office wear with loud prints, basic black ensembles and bright colors cut to fit her powerful physique. But again, first ladies aren't on the political ticket.

Politicians, on the other hand, are public servants elected to work for the people. And they don't make a huge amount of money: The president of the United States of America earns $400,000 a year, so may have some extra dough to drop on a Saville Row suit or two, but his Congressional compatriots aren't necessarily in the same tax bracket. Most elected officials in Congress earn upwards of $169,000 -- a chunk of change, but after taxes, mortgages, accommodations in the home state and in DC, retirement investments, etc., the disposable income left over isn't necessarily enough to warrant a big-label wardrobe. (Many of our elected officials may have independent wealth, but it certainly isn't a prerequisite for holding office.)

Earning potential aside, it simply isn't an elected official's job to look good. At most, their clothes should make them approachable - an everyman or everywoman. It may be why Senator John McCain wore rather endearingly avuncular sweater vests underneath his blazers during the colder campaign months. For his part, Senator Barack Obama has mastered the no-tie, one button undone dress shirt and slacks look, allowing him to resemble....everyone. He could be a lawyer on a dress-down Friday, or one of the many countless businessmen constantly lugging hefty black cases on short-haul Southwest flights from Omaha to Boise.

Similarly, Senator Clinton's monochrome pantsuit is possibly her way of connecting with working women trying to run their households, pay their bills and enjoy themselves when they have a moment or two to spare. She and those women have bigger fish to fry than looking flashy, feminine, and differently attired every day. Worrying about high fashion takes time, energy and money, and there isn't always enough of those resources to justify dazzling, magazine-worthy looks.

Governor Sarah Palin, with her skirt-suits in muted tones, and Senator Joseph Biden's familiar slacks-and-a-shirt-and-sometimes-a-blazer look underscore the argument further. Neither look is particularly shocking or noteworthy.

Aside from blending in, clothes on the campaign trail are about creating a persona. Politicians are self-absorbed altruists - doing everything for the good of the citizens who elected them while advancing their own political careers. Hillary's unwavering commitment to the much-loathed pantsuit is a sartorial reflection of her tenacity and perseverance in the face of criticism. Those no-nonsense solid color numbers worn on the stump may provoke ridicule from the fashion pundits, but coming from a political figure known for valuing loyalty above all else, they also have a purpose: to let you know that no matter what, Hillary is going to stick to her beliefs and her choices -- from universal healthcare to outfits.

If you look around Washington and across the campaign trail, most male politicians aren't any different. How often do you see these guys out of the penguin suit? The lack of variation is the point: if anything, clothes don't make the politician, votes do.

I'm not calling for a moratorium on clothing critiques of women political candidates (or their male counterparts). I appreciate the analysis - after all, these are public figures. However, I am asking for a more nuanced examination, and fewer glib missives complaining that pantsuits aren't enough for our eyes and our aesthetic imaginations.

Every person - elected or not - deserves to look great in clothes that fit well, but no one has to look like a cut-out from a glossy fashion magazine. Washington needs an administration makeover. I, for one, don't care what that administration is wearing.