Politics and fashion have a close relationship that has had its ups and downs throughout history. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette’s extravagant wardrobe and lifestyle added to France’s debts and became a symbol for everything distasteful about the French monarchy at the time. In the 1960s, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis restored the White House to its original splendor and created a place for herself as a style icon. Whether their impact was positive or negative, these women, and others who have held similar positions, are not only remembered for what they did, but also for what they wore.
The same can’t be said for their male counterparts. In all of the 44 U.S. presidencies, I can’t pick out a remarkable or defining style from a president, except for Abraham Lincoln and his top hat. But the first ladies? There’s Mamie Eisenhower whose love for the color pink started a nationwide trend. Nancy Reagan was was scrutinized for accepting expensive designer clothes. And now, Michelle Obama who is known for wearing sleeveless shift dresses and her overall accessible style.
Historically, there’s always been more attention paid to what women in powerful positions wear than what their husbands or partners wear. Is it because men’s fashion in the political sphere just doesn’t have the same room for originality and creativity, and is therefore less notable? Or is it because people hold women to higher expectations when it comes to appearances? Either way, the effect seems to be that women’s policies and initiatives take second place to their wardrobes.
Obama will be remembered for advocating for service members and their families, international adolescent girls’ education, higher education and,most notably, healthy and active families. But she will also be remembered for the political statements she made through fashion. Obama is known for supporting young American fashion designers, but she has also opted for non-American designers at high-profile events, which caused the Council of Fashion Designers of America and industry-legends like Diane von Furstenburg to criticize her. Kate Betts explained the First Lady’s choice best in a 2011 New York Times op-ed.
“Yes, she is sometimes an ambassador for American designers, but more important, she is an ambassador for the self-possession that defines American style,” Betts said.
This self-possession is something that all first ladies, and perhaps all fashion-conscious women, hold. During her first presidential campaign in 2008, Hillary Clinton became synonymous with the rainbow array of power suits she sported and people couldn’t help but focus on her bright separates. Initially, Clinton spoke about the skewed gender-focus on fashion. For her 2016 campaign, however, Clinton realized that she could utilize the people’s obsession with fashion as a campaign strategy. She included everyone in her wardrobe choices with her first Instagram post, which displayed three suits — one red, one white and one blue — with the caption “Hard choices.”
As the campaign progressed, Clinton’s style became gradually quieter with a more subdued wardrobe, while her debates and policies became louder. She found a way to get people to stop talking about her suits, and therefore, be on the same sartorial level as her male opponents. Clinton certainly put the fashion problem at bay, but if she becomes president she’ll have the resources and position to show that fashion isn’t a hindrance for women, but an advantage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25 print edition. Email Sophie Fay Shaw at [email protected]