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The New Pantsuit

Decoding Hillary Clinton's suiting game in the final days of Election 2016.

Last time around, Hillary Clinton wore a lot of blazers.

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Suit jackets with notched lapels, matching trousers, a crewneck shirt, and a beaded necklace formed Clinton's go-to outfit during her presidential campaign in 2008. Often, Clinton chose serious, muted colors like navy, black, and olive, though she wasn't afraid to tap into the rainbow shades she's been known to favor, especially after her run for office ended. There's a Getty photo dated August 26th, 2008 that shows a pair of men standing on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, holding up two blazers apiece — red, tangerine, pale teal, and a calm light blue — to determine which color would look best under the lights when Clinton gave a speech in support of her party's nominee, Barack Obama.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

She chose orange, and that evening gave a shoutout to her supporters, her "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits."

Clinton, patron saint of the pantsuit, still wears those blazers today, but in this year's presidential campaign, her wardrobe has expanded in a different direction. You no doubt recognize the look, though it's best described as a wide set of parameters: a tailored, lapel-less jacket that falls below the hips but above the knees, that may have a collar — which may stand upright — or may not, in the vein of a classic Chanel suit. Tailored trousers and low heels are the standard.

Pantsuit 2.0, as we'll call it for the sake of clarity, isn't really a new look for Clinton. She wore styles that could be lumped into the category during her 2008 campaign and her subsequent tenure as Secretary of State. (There's only so much you can do with a structured jacket and pant, and Clinton has had a long career.) Based on frequency of use, though, Pantsuit 2.0 is very much a hallmark of Clinton's 2016.

A perfect example of this suiting style is the red-on-red Ralph Lauren pantsuit Clinton wore to her first debate against Donald Trump in late September. Collarless and streamlined, the style was absent of adornment aside from its fiery color and two convenient pockets at the hips — simplicity as a statement of capability and confidence.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Just a few days earlier, at a rally in Orlando, Florida, Clinton wore a cobalt blue suit with a high collar and matching trousers. And let's complete the patriotic hat trick: The Friday before that, the Democratic nominee attended the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Phoenix Awards Dinner in a high-collared white A-line jacket that nearly hit her knees. Paired with crisp black pants, the garment's elegant minimalism threw the attention off itself and onto Clinton's beaming face.

Elegance is one priority for the designer Nina McLemore, whose tunics and car coats fit into the Pantsuit 2.0 family, as is conveying a woman's power and professional seriousness. McLemore has found a fanbase in corporate executives as well as political players: Clinton has turned to McLemore's tidy jackets on numerous occasions, as have Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In a video interview with Racked senior editor Meredith Haggerty this August, McLemore explained that classic cuts and conservative colors encourage others to focus on what a woman is saying, rather than what she's wearing, but bright colors pop on television and show that she has a sense of humor. And in McLemore's experience, men appreciate when women wear color rather than navy or black. Wrap all of that advice into one look, and you've got Clinton's red debate outfit.

As for a longer jacket, like McLemore's car coat: "It has the impression of making you look taller and more powerful, and yet it can also be casual," the designer said.

To the extent that dressing as a female politician is a game of finding clothing that flatters without eliciting commentary, Clinton's dressing strategy this election cycle seems to be working. Generally speaking, Trump's citrus-y skin tone and the Van Gogh painting of a wheat field he calls a hairdo have led the personal-aesthetics-in-politics conversation, though both candidates's style has been overshadowed by what comes out of his mouth.

The quiet surrounding Pantsuit 2.0 is somewhat ironic considering that, more than ever, it sets her apart from the pack, which is to say from men in politics. Perhaps the most noticeable quality of the look is what it's not: overtly menswear-inspired. From the American who may well become her country's first female president, that seems like an apt choice.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

That said, menswear vibes do persist. Clinton wore a sleek navy and white shawl collar jacket — a version of a classic men's tuxedo — to her second debate against Trump. But you might even consider that a mark of difference, simply because Clinton's male counterparts aren't likely to wear tuxes to a debate. (Unless it's after six... what are they, farmers?)

When pantsuit talk made its way around Racked's office, social media editor Alizah Farooqi pointed out that Clinton's looks remind her of a shalwar kameez, a style of dress that originated on the Indian subcontinent and remains popular in South Asia today, including in Pakistan, where Farooqi's family is from. Shalwar kameez is a general term referring to an outfit comprising pants and a long shirt. It may have a slim but loose fit reminiscent of the tailoring Clinton goes for, but it encompasses a variety of styles, from palazzo pants to leggings and narrow shirts to tops that flow into a sweeping skirt.

It's not a religious garment, Farooqi explained, nor is it gendered. Both men and women wear the shalwar kameez, and in Pakistan, it's a school uniform for children. It's comfortable and modest, and though lots of stores sell trendier, more high-fashion versions for women, it's a very functional outfit, hence its persistent popularity.

Clinton's reasons for tapping into that silhouette are no doubt similar. It looks good, it's comfortable, and it gets the job done.


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