Kate Betts, a Time contributing editor with a long career in fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, is wrapping up a book on Michelle Obama's fashion. For The Daily Beast today, she's focused on a pressing matter of statecraft: Why can't Hillary Clinton be as stylish as Michelle?
This is such a well-worn topic that Betts already knows to include the following preemption:
"I know it's considered chauvinistic to focus on what powerful women are wearing instead of what they're saying, but we live in a visual culture, so get over it."
If you say so. It's one thing for Betts to use her fashion cred to wonder why Clinton opts for earth tones to blend in when she's in the States but prefers jewel tones for overseas trips. It's quite another for her to perfunctorily cloak this interest in women's plight in the workplace. Here she is on Hillary Clinton's famous pantsuits:
She wears them to fit in, not to stand out, and that's what bugs me. Why can't she stand out? Why do women, when they're sitting at the same table or in the same corner office as the big boys, always have to blend in?
No matter how many glass ceilings they shatter, many powerful female CEOs and CFOs on Wall Street still feel they cannot risk their hard-earned status by fooling around with fashion. My friend Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Lebenthal & Co., recently told me about switching outfits between meetings because she couldn't wear something frivolous-a gray flannel jacket with beading on the collar and cuffs-to a meeting with the treasurer of a big bank. She changed into a Ralph Lauren pinstriped pantsuit because she couldn't risk looking inappropriate.
Sorry, Kate Betts, but women face more pressing problems in the workplace — both the substance of their work and their status within that workplace — than whether they have to change out of beaded blazers between meetings. But okay, as you say, it's a "visual culture." On those terms, while it's unfair that women are held to more complex and demanding standards of self-presentation, it hardly helps when you revive the scrutiny on Clinton long after everyone else has moved on. Wishing that more economists would wear ruffled Lanvin and 7-inch platform stiletto heels, as Dambisa Moyo chose to, is not about women's empowerment to dress as we please in the public sphere. It's about fashion desperately trying to make itself relevant to world affairs by stretching its high-priced diktats into a sphere that is mostly indifferent to Betts' or Wintour's approval.
The comparison to the First Lady is also insulting. However much Michelle Obama leverages her role, it's still largely a ceremonial one. She was not appointed or elected. She does not have to make decisions about plutonium disposal. She is free to spend as much time as she wants debating how often to wear sleeveless and flouncy skirts versus more subdued attire — versus childhood obesity and military families. More importantly, it is abundantly clear that Michelle Obama is interested in fashion and has a strong personal style. For Clinton, the maintenance of personal appearance always seemed to be more of a slightly arduous necessity, something plenty of us can relate to. If Hillary Clinton doesn't care as much, or at all, it's time to move on.
Or, put another way, it may be sexist that women who like ruffles and spike heels aren't taken seriously. But it's no better to think that just because Hillary Clinton is a woman, that she cares that much about wearing that sort of thing instead of "an unremarkable mannish suit."
Are Power Pantsuits The Solution? [Daily Beast]