Mocked and maligned by supporters and critics alike since her days as the First Lady, Clinton’s signature attire symbolizes so much more than a fashion choice.
Hillary Clinton is working on her “softer” side. With a Pinterest account set up to share recipes and other domestic goodies, and an Instagram account highlighting her wardrobe, the presidential possible is working hard to round out her image, and her penchant for bright pantsuits is the keystone.
Over the past 20 years, Hillary’s pantsuit has gone from slightly odd fashion choice, to object worthy of mockery, to a statement used by her critics to point out her masculine properties to Hillary’s very own Bat Signal. Hillary Clinton has managed the impossible. She’s made the pantsuit untouchable. The evolution of Hillary’s pantsuit reaches far beyond fashion and represents the triumph of ambition and tenacity of womanhood at its core. At least to me.
The year was 1992. I was a tween and very impressionable. Right around the time Hillary started showing up on my television set in her canary and olive and teal pantsuits, my mother was trading in her scrubs for power-shoulder pads high enough to crack the glass ceiling. Through grit and willpower, my mother earned her master’s degree in business and transformed herself from a nurse to an executive, and on lazy afternoons, I would play in her closet full of printed pantsuits. Fall leaves, paisley, polka-dots, my mother had them all.
And through her struggles in my youth, I saw the very personal side of a woman trying to rise in the ranks. Shot down time and again by the men in the office who branded her too aggressive or ambitious, she would sometimes come home in tears, worried for her job, questioning her very personality. She prevailed, rising higher and higher, and right alongside her and her pantsuits was Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits.
By the time I graduated high school, the Clinton’s were ending their time in the White House, and I had been conditioned to see the clothing item as a symbol of empowerment, as a trademark of strong women. I associated pantsuits with everything I wanted to be—calm under pressure, demure but straightforward, strongly stating my beliefs.
In my senior picture in college, I’m sporting a pale-yellow pantsuit. I’m 32 now, and I’ve held at least a half-dozen news jobs. I interviewed for every single one of them in a pantsuit, usually pinstriped. I had to make them my own somehow, and it seemed pinstripes were the only pantsuits not currently taken by a future world leader.
On the other side, some younger feminists are wary of “reducing Hillary to what she wears.” They argue that focusing on clothing is not something we would do with men politicians (although everyone was quick to jump all over Obama’s tan suit if I remember correctly) and are hesitant to celebrate the pantsuit as a symbol of strength and stability, or, really, just a symbol of Hillary.
Stripped of context, this argument makes sense, but the point of the pantsuit is that Hillary took something that was meant to be pejorative and predatory and owned it. She turned what was meant to be a mean-spirited ad-hominem attack on her person into a well-loved phenomenon centering on her. That in itself is a feat to be recognized and lauded. Because the pantsuit is no longer an outfit. It is a signature, an embodiment. And it is one of Hillary Clinton’s choosing. She’s consciously made it into her brand in a fit of genius that can only be envied.
For those of us who grew up with First Lady Hillary Clinton, we well remember the days of the blue dress versus the pantsuit when both women involved in a presidential sex scandal were reduced to the clothes that they wore in an attempt to stereotype the relationships in the White House and excuse the man involved. During Bill Clinton’s scandal, Hillary was forced to deflect comments about her hairstyle, her clothing choices, and her body. She was called emasculating hundreds of times. The refrain seemed to be, “Of course he cheated on her. Look at her. Look at her in those pantsuits.”
The nerve of a woman wearing something that expresses who she is, wearing something that she is comfortable in. The pantsuits, before becoming this symbol of empowerment, were the stepping stone to character judgments. She’s too pushy, too bossy, too loud, too ambitious, too manly. She’s not what a First Lady should be. And still, she wore those pantsuits, undeterred.
In this way, no choice Hillary has ever made about her appearance can be taken lightly because her appearance has been used to determine her worth for decades. Hillary is well aware of that, and I think it explains why she is so incredibly pro-actively pantsuit.
To me, the pantsuit is a symbol of strength, of being true to yourself. Hillary Clinton is a pantsuit. And that doesn’t add to or take away from anything she does in the political sphere. It is separate from her decisions as a lawmaker, separate from who she is as a person, and yet it embodies the persona she at first had foisted upon her and then embraced and changed into her own true reflection.
And her running for office in 2016 gives women of all ages the chance to examine how tied up in appearance we become when thinking of women in any position. From teenagers to grandmothers, everyone is having discussions about the notions that attach themselves to women, power, sex, identity, and branding. These are important nuances that often fly under the radar in our thoughts about women in politics or business but that remain ever-present in our subconscious.
Yes, Hillary wears the pantsuits in the Clinton household. And God love her for it.
Ever in on the joke and defining her own identity, she is also selling a pantsuit T-shirt, and all I can say is “Shut up and take my money.”
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.