The Pantsuit Paradox

How do women signal power at the boys' club?

“Rage Over Cleavage!” was the headline that turned me into a Clinton booster. Other than that typically understated summation from the Times of India, last month’s spat over the state of Clinton’s décolletage saw wave after peristaltic wave of pious vapidity, followed by the occasional spasm of outright misogyny. In response to Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan’s controversial piece on Clinton’s decision to bare some breast, almost no one saw fit to recognize the immense challenges Clinton faces as a woman dressing to project authority.

Least of all her supporters. “Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting,” wrote campaign official Ann Lewis in a fundraising letter. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman excoriated “those media monitors who seek deep meaning in every shoe, sexual clues in every hemline, and psychological insights in every shirt collar.” Appearances shouldn’t matter, so why acknowledge that they do?

Forget the mountains of studies on cognition, perception, affective priming, the importance of signaling in social interactions, and the disadvantages women are known face due to implicit bias. The radical idea that clothes convey meaning is apparently something Givhan concocted in the corner of the newsroom and sold to credulous readers, every bit as cooked up as little Jimmy’s heroin in the embarrassing annals of Post history.

The semiotically-challenged might benefit from a jaunt through historian Philip Mansel’s Dressed to Rule, an erudite chronicle of power manifest in heels, robes, and epaulets of the 18th century. Mansel is deeply informed about the rich social meaning of fashion, which communicated authority long before the days of mass media. “No society,” Mansel writes, “has modernized itself successfully without a dress revolution.” Mansel’s work is also—for obvious reasons—a heavily male history of power and dress.

This is the crippling historical lacuna Clinton, Pelosi, and their few female colleagues face every time they stare into their closets. They have no shoulder pads, as it were, to stand on. There is simply no female uniform that effectively and consistently broadcasts authority; no equivalent to the male suit. It’s hard to think of anywhere that this poses a problem more severe than in the Senate, a body so invested in gender equality, Givhan informs us, that until the early 90s its members refused to abide women in pants.

But who cares about such a trivial thing as the trappings of dress, especially on a woman of a certain age? A sizable literature on unconscious processes in cognition suggests that visual cues affect us on a level we are not aware of; that is to say, we are capable of making major choices based on input we don’t consciously notice or consider. You don’t have to be a misogynist, or part of the charming 11 percent of Americans who say they will never vote for a woman, to react in ways you’ve not subjected to conscious deliberation.

Lacking a Y chromosome almost certainly puts half the population at a disadvantage in the quest to signal competence and authority. Women are repeatedly judged as having performed better in blind assessments of their abilities, from thesis papers to orchestra tryouts, than they are judged when their gender is revealed. They respond by flocking to careers where competence is most directly signaled, like those in medicine and law. Implicit bias studies, though controversial, indicate that even the most progressive among us harbor stereotyped associations (pdf) about gender, family, and work.

There is evidence that these biases can be lessened with exposure to counter-stereotypes, another reason to hope that women can nail down a sartorial language of authority. Perhaps the closest we’ve come in recent years is an image of Condoleeza Rice sporting tall black boots and looking like something out of Angelina Jolie’s female assassin agency in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

High-heeled, knee-high boots are not an option for Clinton, who must somehow find a way to signal authority while conforming to an electably conservative presentation of gender. In contrast to many of the opulently dressed political bigwigs in Mansel’s history, she has to gesture toward competence and class while shying from elitism or impracticality. Obama and Edwards can achieve all of this with a well-pressed business suit and a shoeshine. Clinton must cope with many more elements of dress, and she can’t be sure that whatever frequency she transmits will be received uniformly by her audience.

Thus Clinton’s many makeovers, a ready source of snark for her critics. Clinton’s struggle to find an aesthetic language and a politically amenable identity can come across as inauthentic—fashion flip-flopping. Witness the easter egg-colored pantsuit, a crude attempt to splice male fashion with non-threatening female hues—the sartorial equivalent of New Shimmer. It was a failure, but it was also a start.

Even those who despise Clinton may have reason to hope that she and others can find sources of authority in the trappings of dress. It’s a perhaps unfair, but surely widespread, assessment of Clinton that she has chosen to compensate for the perception of feminine weakness with a truculent foreign policy. In a better world Clinton and other high-achieving women may help create, meticulous attire will send a stronger signal than mindless aggression.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor for reason.

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