clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Filed under:

An Exhaustive Timeline of Hillary Clinton's Power Suits

From 26-year-old lawyer to First Lady to 2016 presidential candidate.

Millennials seem pretty keen to believe that we just recently decided to like Hillary Clinton. We saw her texting one day, made it into a meme, and then we loved her! That's not actually true, of course.


Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Hillary Clinton has gone from being beloved to reviled to beloved again. A lot of that has do with the fact that she seems like anything but a traditional First Lady. She's not known for, say, popularizing the color pink like Mamie Eisenhower or swanning around in sequins like Nancy Reagan. The one style statement she is remembered for is her fondness for pantsuits; she even calls herself a "pantsuit aficionado" in her official Twitter bio. The fact that she always seemed to wear the pants—quite literally—seemed to represent the fact that Hillary was never going to be content with a traditional, "ladylike" role.

The Early Years

Bringing impeachment charges against President Nixon in 1974. Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Just look at Hillary breaking out the pantsuits in 1974 when she was a 26-year-old attorney working on the Watergate commission. Her attire was in keeping with the feminist spirit of the times. It was just the year prior when the executive vice president of Revlon announced the company's new fragrance, Charlie, claiming that women, "can do anything you want to do, without any criticism being directed at you. If you want to wear pantsuits at the office instead of a skirt, fine."

1992: Bill's Presidential Campaign

The idea of Hillary Clinton as a professional modern woman in her own right—who wasn't afraid to dress like one—was so popular in 1992 that women donned pins that proclaimed, "Elect Hillary's Husband." However, she did become a controversial figure when she remarked, "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." A profession that required a suit. That she continued to dress like a lawyer rather than a politico's wife seemed to indicate that becoming First Lady didn't mean she'd be giving up her personal goals for the sake of her husband.

On the campaign trail with Bill in 1992. Left, on election day. Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images. Right, in New York. Photo by Porter Gifford/Liaison

The fact that Hillary had her own political ideas, and had been an attorney before becoming First Lady, meant that Hillary and Bill were often seen as a two-for-one package in 1992. Her demeanor—and attire, in pantsuits and power jackets rather than ladylike pearls—was in stark contrast to former First Lady Barbara Bush's, who claimed that she worked very hard never to let her husband be influenced by her views (especially on abortion.)

On the cover of Vogue in 1998. Image courtesy Vogue

In a very House of Cards move, shortly after Bill Clinton was sworn in he appointed Hillary head of the task force on national health care reform. It immediately became a controversial appointment. Hillary later wrote, "I underestimated the resistance I would meet as the First Lady with a policy mission." While once people had loved Hillary's businesslike style and attitude, nostalgia for more demure first ladies like Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan soon set in.

For the next few years, Hillary was shuffled off to the sidelines. She appeared in some very traditional First Lady ballgowns (especially on the cover of Vogue). When she did appear in a pantsuit, it typically looked designed for a pleasure cruise, like one the Clintons took in 1996 with the Prime Minister of Australia and his wife, rather than something that would dominate a boardroom.

The Lewinsky Scandal

Then, in 1998, the Lewinsky scandal happened and Hillary went back to pantsuits. Maybe it was to create a contrast between her and Bill's much younger mistress, Monica Lewinsky. Or maybe it was just because Hillary didn't care as much about looking like a traditional First Lady to benefit her husband anymore. She might have been holding Bill's hand, but she was wearing exactly what she wanted to.

With astronaut Eileen Collins. Photo by Karin Cooper

Around this time, Hillary also showed her support for feminist trailblazers like the astronaut Eileen Collins, who was named the first female commander of a NASA mission. Hillary even wore a power jacket with military style epaulettes when speaking to her. She's always had a fondness for women who seem to follow in the footsteps of her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt—another First Lady who wasn't big on ruffles and pearls.

Seriously. Hillary was going to wear pants whenever, and wherever, including to the Shakespeare in Love premiere in December of 1998. (Where she looked a lot more comfortable than a chilly seeming Gwyneth Paltrow.)

The Road to #Hillary2016

Wearing the pants—and seeming like a businesswoman rather than simply an elegant wife—paid off. Or, at least, it seemed to help Clinton accomplish her personal goals. She shone in a pale blue pantsuit when, in 2000, she was elected Senator of New York, making her the first First Lady to hold an elected office.

Before delivering her victory speech as the newly-elected Senator of New York. Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

By 2009, Bill Clinton was holding her hand when she became the Secretary of State. While she's continued to make headlines for her sometimes controversial pantsuits—Tim Gunn accused her of being confused about her gender—she's generally attempted to keep the focus off her style. When asked by a moderator in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, 'Which designers do you prefer?' Hillary briskly replied, 'Would you ever ask a man that question?'

We may not know which designers she favors, but today, Hillary continues to lean in wearing boldy patterned, gleaming jackets. And when she does go shopping, it's because she's stocking up for her Presidential campaign.  She may just have been 20 years ahead of a #Girlboss culture that's now catching up to her.


Watch: The Politics of Pockets

Farewell From Racked

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Essays

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Funny Stuff