Park: Dress for Power

by Annika Park | 4/2/15 8:02pm

It’s been a long time coming for Hillary Clinton. As former First Lady of Arkansas and later the United States, Senator of New York and U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 until 2013, many have speculated that she’s now aiming for the office of Commander-in-Chief as her next role. Though times have been rough for the Clinton camp following the scandal around her use of a private email account while Secretary of State, she looks better than ever — at least according to stylists like Tim Gunn.

Such discussion of style raises an important question — should female leaders harness their feminine qualities in sartorial choices, or should they mimic traditionally masculine business attire? What does choice of dress mean when your potential job is traditionally male?

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher provide two contrasting answers. Aung San Suu Kyi is often seen donning flowers in her hair and sporting a traditional dress in soft tones. Though she stands firm behind her beliefs, her style reflects her generally demure demeanor. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher is remembered for her blown-out, blonde updo and cobalt blue shoulder-padded pantsuits. Her style communicated her power, control and ruthlessness. One leader wore clothes that put her people at ease, while the other’s reflected her uncompromising determination to transform her country’s politics.

Clinton is an interesting example. As a political figure, her style shifted when her role changed — no longer was she the “plus one,” but the name on the guest list. Out went the pink, purple and whites, and in came the reds, blues and blacks. The fact that women need to carefully engineer their style to be taken seriously is regrettable. Yet the reality is that if she looks good, she is going to command more attention.

Pulling this off isn’t as simple as it sounds. I doubt that a girl will be taken seriously in a pink dress, blonde curls and a monogrammed tote bag. The “Legally Blonde” look doesn’t really work in real life — you likely won’t find many women dressed like Elle Woods in the world of politics, academia or business. Femininity in dress is only acceptable to a certain degree, where it is present enough to define her as a character, but subtle enough so as not to be “distracting.” In a 1998 feature in People magazine — cleverly titled “Dress softly and carry a big stick” — the magazine made a bold statement that a woman will always be judged not just on how she is, but how she looks. As lamentable as that reality is, many female leaders have learned to embrace and manipulate it.

Take Christine LaGarde, the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, for example. She has made bold, assertive choices by “power-dressing” with elegance — a splash of color or a print on a metallic suit with a vivid scarf. In a 2011 Forbes opinion column, Raquel Laneri argued that she uses “traditionally feminine accessories to communicate her authority.”

The personality of a female leader makes all the difference in her sartorial choices. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the focus of People’s article, is known for her colorful suits, statement brooches and love for shiny pumps over flats. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s eccentric style and love of lace are well-known. It is possible that there is a distinction between a woman trying to break into a man’s world and one who has already established herself and no longer has anything to prove. An outsider, like Thatcher, likely has little or no choice but to put on a mask of a man, but an appointed Secretary of State or Supreme Court Justice would seem to have more freedom to experiment with one’s sartorial choices.

Just because a woman uses her femininity to her advantage does not make her a femme fatale or indicate she has given in to the patriarchy. It is not shameful for powerful women to love pink and lipstick. As Albright herself said, a woman does not need to hide her femininity to be accepted in a man’s world, as long as she “goes in with her arms swinging like a man.” That a woman’s femininity only becomes powerful when paired with a “manly” fortitude and demeanor is a shame — but you can bet that Clinton, like other female leaders who came before her, knows how to exploit the scrutiny on her style.