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For female candidates, Clinton conservative trumps Palin chic

A woman seeking political office in 2010 faces a fashion quandary. Ignore current fashion and you risk seeming out of touch. Embrace it too warmly and you undermine your credibility. Should politicians aim to dress unremarkably?
/ Source: The New York Times

At a glance, Ms. Palin — she of the designer jackets, rump-hugging skirts and knee-high boots — would seem to have been a game changer, loosening up a restrictive, if unwritten, campaign dress code with one that expresses a more conventionally feminine look. Her bright, curve-enhancing garments and loose, shoulder-grazing hair — even her rimless glasses — have been taken up by a handful of candidates on the climb. This is especially true of fellow Republicans like Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who appear to be following Ms. Palin’s style cues with striking fidelity.

Lisa A. Kline, the image consultant behind Ms. Palin’s controversial $150,000-plus fashion makeover during the 2008 campaign, views her client’s embrace of an overtly female archetype as a signal of rebellion. “Women want to change their image.” Ms. Kline said in an interview. “They had been in the mimicking-men phase for so long. Now they are going for femininity.”

Well, look again, Ms. Kline. For all the ridicule that Mrs. Clinton’s boxy pantsuits have generated over the years — she seems to own one in every color, from turquoise to fuchsia — her mannishly functional wardrobe remains the go-to choice for women on the path to power.

On their own steam — or perhaps at the suggestion of a battery of campaign advisers — the majority of candidates are retreating, as they have for decades, to the relative safety of an anodyne uniform. Understated to a fault, its chief components are a formless suit, flat or low-heeled shoes and a noncommittal hairstyle. It’s a brusquely masculine image tempered occasionally by a strand of pearls and dainty, never dangly, earrings (the latter deemed too distracting for television cameras).

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“A Palin effect? Show it to me,” said Christine K. Jahnke, a media trainer who advised Mrs. Clinton during her presidential campaign. “Women aren’t trying to look like Sarah Palin. That would be a mistake.”

They are for the most part “still walking a tightrope,” said Ms. Jahnke, who advises female candidates to adopt a high-quality, low-key wardrobe befitting a corporate chief executive. “You have to look approachable and, at the same time, look like you can handle the job,” she said.

Siobhan Bennett, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, a bipartisan group that seeks to get women elected, sees plenty of Americans adopting Ms. Palin’s glasses and “bedhead” coif. “But that’s in the general populace,” Ms. Bennett stressed, “not on the campaign trail.”

Indeed, there is much to suggest that women who aspire to office continue to dress defensively. Frightened, even terrified, of committing a wardrobe gaffe on national airwaves, most adhere to a rigid, patently dated style that has all the allure of a milk carton.

The prevailing look, modeled on corporate executives, with an occasional nod to the astringent style of female news anchors, is anathema to professional style-watchers. When, during her presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton declined an invitation to appear in Vogue magazine for fear, her handlers said, of appearing “too feminine,” Anna Wintour fired off a scathing editor’s letter.

“The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously is frankly dismaying,” Ms. Wintour chided. “I do think Americans have moved on from the power suit mentality. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.”

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But even a cursory rummage through news clips and Web sites indicates that women courting power still adopt a strategic style of dress conceived to keep their curves — and their characters — neatly under wraps.

Among those candidates, including Palin acolytes, sophistication is in short supply, said Sharon Graubard, a senior executive with Stylesight, a trend-forecasting firm in New York. “These women have yet to figure out a way to project a confident femininity,” Ms. Graubard said. They have yet to work out “an elegant look that doesn’t rely on ill-fitting suits and bad colors.”

The $2,500 Valentino suit that Ms. Palin wore at the Republican convention is cited by Ms. Graubard as an example. “The quality was an improvement over typical campaign wear, but the styling certainly didn’t push any envelope,” she said. Despite her pricey fashion face-lift, Ms. Palin, she said, “looked like a mall mom.”

epa01476660 Alaska Governor and Vice President nominee Sarah Palin address the third session of the 2008 Republican National Convention in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA 03 September 2008. The convention is scheduled to run through 04 September where Arizona Senator John McCain is expected to receive the Republican nomination as a presidential candidate. EPA/LARRY W. SMITHLarry W. Smith / EPA

Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, has attempted to temper such arguments with a dose of common sense. Writing last week in Slate, he argued that flamboyance and politics are mutually exclusive. “Leave the Cavalli jumpsuits and Balmain new-punk to we constituents,” Mr. Doonan pleaded.

While common sense would seem to dictate that an essentially conservative formula is being adopted chiefly by women over 45, that is not necessarily the case. In matters of wardrobe there is no discernible generational divide, according to Ms. Jahnke. The tendency among women of varying ages is to adopt a style that is “office appropriate,” she said, “and that by definition is conservative.”

There is a generational divide in the way these women approach their appearance. “Younger women almost instinctively know they have to pay attention to how they look,” Ms. Jahnke said. “They’ll say: ‘Help me fix my hair. What makeup do I need for high-definition television?’ ” Older women, she said, tend to be less focused on appearance. “You need to convince or cajole them to update their hairstyle, their eyeglasses, their suits.”

Didi Barrett, a Democratic candidate for the State Senate in New York, favors a wardrobe of all-occasion shirt-jackets custom-tailored by a seamstress in Rhinebeck, N.Y. At a Democratic rally in Hyde Park last week, she wore a plain-Jane teal jacket and windowpane shawl. “When you are courting voters,” she said, “you need to accommodate their expectations.”

Barbara Jeter-Jackson, who represents Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the Dutchess County legislature, was turned out at the rally in a chalk-stripe pantsuit that echoed the garb of her constituents, who, regardless of age, for the most part wore unlined jackets or cardigans and loose pants. Ms. Jeter-Jackson made sure her suit would violate no unofficial taboos. After all, as she said, a woman in office “can’t be too provocative.”

The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew.

OR too careful, it would seem. In an age of punctilious correctness, commenting on a candidate’s attire is perceived more than ever as trivializing, if not sexist or downright demeaning. Yet women seeking office continue to attract the kind of physical scrutiny that is rarely directed at a man.

In a 2008 article, “Cutting Women Out: The Media’s Bias Against Female Candidates,” Erika Falk, who studied eight races in the 2008 elections, concluded that “coverage of how women candidates look — while ignoring such observations about men candidates — has been an ongoing problem.”

Ms. Falk, who runs the master’s degree program in communication at Johns Hopkins University, found that each of eight female candidates that year received about “four physical descriptions for every one that described a man.” At the time, she added, about 29 percent of articles about Hillary Clinton contained a physical description.”

“Historically, we’ve associated masculinity with leadership,” Ms. Falk said in an interview. “If you’re a woman politician, it makes pretty good sense to come off in a stereotypically masculine way.”

To ignore that assessment is to invite the pointed and often distracting comments that continue to pepper mainstream media coverage. A July profile of Ms. Haley in Newsweek began by observing that the candidate wore “a snug, saffron-colored suit and stilettos you could impale a small animal with.”

In September the Daily News coyly observed that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is seeking re-election in New York, has become “a leaner, meaner campaign machine ... showing a slimmer silhouette as a tough election battle looms.”

Only last week the Daily News took a swipe at Mrs. Clinton, observing that she “has had more hairstyles than a beauty-school dummy.”

Senator Gillibrand, who, with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is often singled out as a smartly tailored fashion role model, likes to deflect that sort of commentary. “You would never write about Chuck Schumer’s shoes,” she told a reporter for New York magazine in response to a question about her flats.

Yet she submitted to a fashion makeover in the November issue of Vogue, shedding her earnest navy or gray tailored suits for a form-fitting Michael Kors sheath and a reefer coat. Was Vogue’s sartorial endorsement a boost or bane for her campaign? Senator Gillibrand’s office declined to comment.

Which underscores the quandary. Ignore current fashion and you risk seeming out of touch. Embrace it too warmly and you undermine your credibility. Ms. Bachmann, it might be argued, is a case in point. Her expensive-looking wardrobe, Ms. Jahnke maintained, “puts her out of step with her district,” which has a high unemployment rate.

A successful politician, Mr. Doonan wrote in Slate, must appear Prada-oblivious: “Any hint of dandyism or vanity would indicate a superficial, self-indulgent character.”

Politicians, he added, “dress as to be unremarkable.”

He might have been describing Ms. Barrett, the State Senate candidate, who has tried to distance herself from flashier peers by giving up the biker boots and folkloric scarves she wore in her pre-stump days. Appearance is a concern, she acknowledged. “But in the pecking order of campaign priorities, I don’t think it’s a significant one.”

Still, she said, after a beat, “When I see myself on television, I think, ‘Ah, image.’ ”

This story, “The Fashion Conservatives," originally appeared in The New York Times.