State of the [Fashion] Union: All Things Considered

During the final minutes leading up to President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address this past Tuesday, CNN’s main twitter page published the following tweet:

Tweet posted by @CNN on Jan. 28
Tweet posted by @CNN on Jan. 28

My initial reaction was that of aggravation—why should the public be concerned about the color of a tie versus the key points that President Obama planned to speak about? However, I was happy to see that the tweet focused on President Obama as opposed to First Lady Michelle Obama, a familiar target of style bloggers and political pundits alike. Of course, fashion has always had a significant role in the political realm, especially regarding primary figures, but when does the wardrobe obsession go too far?

Though American culture and mass media have always followed the style choices of our nation’s most powerful, it seems as though coverage has been at an all time high in recent years, arguably sparked by criticism of former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s ensembles back in the early ‘90s and continuing into the present day. First, there were the comments on her affinity for pantsuits. Then, there were the heated articles and commentary pinning her appearance and overall demeanor as tough and overly masculine, qualities that when describing a man would surely be noted as “assertive” and “strong”. Even in 2014, as things are looking up for women in politics, they still have a long way to go.

From left: Former First Lady and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama
From left: Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama

Following President Obama’s SOTU speech, there were the usual postings about the FLOTUS’ outfit of choice (Azzedine Alaia, pictured above), and though it was considered fairly conservative compared to prior address ensembles, why does it matter? My problem does not lie with the adoration of her closet, but rather the insultingly large amount of attention that her clothes always garner on the newsstands and political blogs. Think about it — how often do you hear about her “scandalous” showing of shoulders or bold fashion statements instead of her ongoing campaigns and initiatives on childhood obesity and education? As a fan of all things high fashion, I don’t mind knowing about the daily looks of D.C.’s elite, but when that’s all that I know—especially with regards to women—there is something wrong with the way that we value a woman’s place (and voice) in politics.

On the other hand, corporate and political fashion has evolved to include bolder pieces and less conventional style choices, allowing more designers to tailor their collections for wear in the workplace. Even television characters are taking on bigger wardrobe risks and reaping the rewards. On ABC’s Scandal, Olivia Pope (portrayed by actress Kerry Washington) is regularly praised as one of the most stylish characters on network television, particularly because of her role as a political fixer and advisor for the president—a role that usually doesn’t provide itself to the label “fashion icon”. Other shows, such as The Mindy Project (FOX), represent women in science fields as similarly notable trend mavens.

Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)
Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project) and D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, Scandal)

So back to POTUS’ tie—it was a mix between periwinkle and baby blue and, shockingly, the world economy didn’t collapse because he chose to wear it. Perhaps because it was simply a tie, or because he is a man and more often than not his style is often less heavily judged than that of a woman. With that assumption in mind, if we choose to draw any attention to political clothing choices, at the very least we should pay equal attention to both men and women in politics. Because, really, when was the last time President Obama was criticized for a suit?

 Gianna Collier-Pitts is the Violet Vision Editor of the Washington Square News. Email her at gcollierpitts@nyunews.com.
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