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It's Not Sexist to Talk About Hillary Clinton's Clothing

From "Hatless Jack" Kennedy to Clinton's pantsuits, politicians dress to send a message.

Talking about what Hillary Clinton is wearing isn't sexist. Or, at least, it's not always sexist. It certainly can be. If Hillary were making a political point and someone leapt up to demand, "Why don't you dress sexier and smile more?" that would be sexist and diminishing. Frankly, it would also be a stupid comment made by a crazy person who did not understand how political speeches work.


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Of course talking about presidential fashion is superficial. But almost everyone is a little superficial.

Still, crazy, dumb comments that distract from actual issues do happen. Take the time in the 2008 Democratic debates when Hillary was asked if she preferred diamonds or pearls. She replied laughingly that she wanted both, but the question really could have been more relevant to the political issues she was there to discuss.

No doubt being asked about your fashion choices when they are not the topic you wish to discuss is irritating. When Hillary was asked her favorite designers at a "towninterview" in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, she replied, "Would you ever ask a man that question?" Her frustration was completely understandable, especially since she'd just noted that women in traditionally male-dominated professions often have their clothing choices scrutinized.

But when someone is running for President, they do have their fashion choices scrutinized, regardless of gender. The answer is yes, we do pose that somewhat frivolous "Who are your favorite designers?" question to men.

We know Obama's favorite designers because he's been asked about it. On the 2008 campaign trail he wore suits from a company called Hart Schaffner Marx in Chicago, and Martin Greenfield acts as his tailor. Obama favors blue and gray suits, probably because when he wears a tan one, we never stop joking about it. (Once, it completely overshadowed the fact that he was discussing pressing issues like ISIS and the Ukraine).

Of course talking about presidential fashion is superficial. But almost everyone is a little superficial. We want to vote for someone who is not just the most qualified, but who also dresses and behaves in a way that we like and admire. Accordingly, the appearance of a candidate plays a huge role in whether or not they'll be elected.

John Edwards lost the Democratic nomination in 2007 at least in part because people thought his haircut was too fancy. Meanwhile JFK is said to have won in part because he seemed young and cool—as evidenced by the fact that he didn't wear a hat. That fashion statement became so much a part of his identity that he was nicknamed "Hatless Jack."

The way candidates dress makes a statement about whether or not they understand the tastes of the American people.

Personal style can make or break candidates. That's partly because, on a slightly less superficial note, the way candidates dress makes a statement about whether or not they understand the tastes of the American people. For instance, after WWII, many Americans had tired of wearing hats. Kennedy was out among them enough to be able to pick up on that. The outfits candidates choose are still intended to show that they represent the people. Today, a candidate who appeared at every debate wearing a fedora would seem hilarious and out of touch, even if he was a genius, a staunch supporter of the American millinery industrial complex, and otherwise perfectly qualified to be president.

The outfits Hillary chooses as the first serious female presidential candidate are significant because they point to American attitudes. The way she dresses (which has likely been focus-tested many times) is an indication of what women in the political sphere need to wear in order to be taken seriously. Hillary knows the choices of a woman in her position will be scrutinized. She said as much in 2008.

When we write about Hillary's affection for pantsuits, some people are inclined to reply, "Why is that a big deal? Every male candidate wears pants and a suit." Well, yes, of course they do. That's because if they went onstage wearing a beautifully cut dress, their political career would be over.

Hillary Clinton is the first serious presidential candidate who has had the option of wearing a dress. She's navigating some pretty uncharted sartorial waters.

Male candidates honestly have it pretty easy in terms of making non-controversial clothing choices. They need to wear a suit, probably gray or blue, and a tie in patriotic colors. When they deviate from this uniform in any way, even with something as simple as "dad jeans," we'll talk about it for ages.

Hillary Clinton is the first serious presidential candidate who has had the option of wearing a dress onstage. She has so many options that she's navigating some pretty uncharted sartorial waters.

The fact that she generally chooses to wear pants and a suit jacket—especially during a time when empowered women like Sheryl Sandberg appear on the cover of Time Magazine in dresses—is revealing. Maybe it's because she just legitimately loves the cut and feel of pantsuits. Or maybe it's because, while the country might be ready for a female president, they're not ready for a Presidential candidate up onstage in a dress. In an era where telling a woman she's "just like one of the guys" is a compliment, and telling a man that he's "acting like a girl" is an insult, the fact that Hillary chooses roughly the same attire worn by male candidates isn't that surprising.

What Hillary wears tells us very little about her political savvy, her foreign policy expertise, or many other factors that would influence her ability to be President. But, for politicians perhaps more than anyone else, clothing is armor. What Clinton wears tells us a lot about how she and her staff feel a female Presidential candidate should look to make the best impression before the American people. It tells us, in other words, what a team of experts think Americans want from a woman in power.

Hillary Clinton is a smart, savvy woman. Whatever she is wearing is the armor she thinks will be most effective. So, no, it's not sexist to look at a presidential candidate's outfits and appraise them—we do that with every candidate. However, what she chooses to wear, and what she doesn't, may reflect some of our sexist attitudes back at us.

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