Skirting the Issues

Will Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in the clothes horse race?

The country may be ready for a woman in high office, but can we shed its lurid fascination with the details of her wardrobe? As the first female to have a real shot at the presidency, Hillary Clinton will be scrutinized—clinically examined, coldly dissected—and not just for her pro-war votes or the vagaries of her relationship with her philandering husband or whatever gaffes she will inevitably commit on the campaign trail. Unlike the male candidates who crowd the field, Clinton will also be taken to task for whatever she has on her back: Over the next 18 months we will stare at our TV screens, licking our lips, waiting to see if and when she will commit the sartorial equivalent of Howard Dean's scream.

You can be sure that Barack Obama won't suffer these critical slings and arrows nearly as severely. Even if he sports a John Kerry–esque windsurfing ensemble or a grouse-hunting outfit, he'll only be teased for one news cycle. Unless they don a grass skirt or a Batman cape, men running for office are usually safe from ridicule. Composed predominantly of sharp suits and that increasingly rare and archaic item—the woolen overcoat once known as a Chesterfield (President Bush has one too!), Obama's wardrobe, and the pinstripes and polos favored by his fellow candidates, are treated by the press like soothingly neutral background music.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: Unlike their male counterparts, women politicians have no single way that they are expected to dress. Whatever you do, you're wrong: You're either too sexy or too dowdy; too soignée or too sloppy. The apparently irresistible desire to savage women transcends party and even international lines: Condi Rice's butchy boots and her shopping trip to Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue (OK, so it was only a few days after Hurricane Katrina) were widely excoriated; Ségoléne Royal, the Socialist candidate for the presidency of France (if she wins, she'll be that country's first female head of state) was hammered for traipsing around the slums of Chile in spike heels, and she also garnered plenty of borderline lascivious commentary when she appeared in a turquoise bikini last summer looking like a living advertisement for French Women Don't Get Fat.

(Oh, those bathing suits. Even the elegant Obama was caught with his pants down, frolicking in the Hawaiian surf. He looked good, but there were those who were quick to point out that he had a "just a bit of flab around the abs," in the uncharitable words of Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. And Clinton had her own From Here to Eternity moment, wearing a mommy-one-piece nine years ago in the Caribbean, nuzzling her naughty hubby on the beach. )

Of course, none of this is exactly new; the clothes of famous women have been fair game for decades. No one remembers anything Franklin Roosevelt ever wore, but Eleanor? Mrs. Roosevelt, who, by coincidence, is the historical figure Clinton feels so close to that she even has imaginary conversations with her, was regularly ripped to shreds for her appearance by a vicious contemporary press, prompting her famous remark that "Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide." When a newspaper reporter wrote sneeringly that he doubted she spent even $300 a year on clothes, the feisty Roosevelt cut the article out and proudly kept it in her scrapbook.

Clinton's wardrobe—not to mention her shifting parade of hairdos—has likewise been tabloid fodder for years, though lately she appears more and more in the costume she seems most comfortable wearing—a black pantsuit, as close to the male politicians' typical ensemble as a woman can get. Still, she feels the need to drop the black when she's in foreign territory; in Iowa (where she recently gave that sound bite about how well-equipped she is to deal with "evil and bad men") she donned the pantsuit, albeit in pink.

Then again, maybe she just likes pink. She is, after all, originally from the Midwest, where pastels traditionally have more currency than metropolitan black. (Come to think of it, isn't it a bit strange that she's the junior senator from New York, rather than her home state of Illinois, which her chief adversary represents?)

Of course, what makes this whole business so tricky is that sometimes your clothes can send a message that is diametrically opposed to the one that's coming out of your mouth. The most venal female social reactionary can favor three-piece trouser suits; a staunch feminist may happily wallow in ruffles and pearls. You've only to look back at Clinton's 1975 wedding dress to see how confusing this all can be. "She bought it off the rack at Dillard's. It was made out of a linen-y fabric, beige cotton-linen sort of, very muslin-y, very earthy," recalls Jessica McClintock, the frock's designer. "Sleeves, cuffs, had a Queen Anne kind of neckline. I consider Hillary to be a top-rate flower child." It was, in fact, just the sort of dress that a little woman who would stand by her man and bake cookies would wear. But this flower child remained Rodham on her wedding day, only adopting Bill's surname after her husband lost his 1980 bid for Arkansas governor. (He won the next time around.)

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