Fashion Politics: A Critique of Fashion Choices on the World Stage

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Can fashion be political? Take our little trip through white house history and explore some fashion politics from over the years.


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Fashion Politics: A Critique of Fashion Choices on the World Stage

Editor’s Post by Deborah Hetrick Catanese

Recent posts by Allison took us on a journey about fashion, inspired by the election. Today, I’d like to take our Project Motherhood readers on an imaginary trip with me into the future of powerful women and their fashion choices. To do so, we will need to take a look at our recent past. So, check out the above picture of the President and the First Lady at their first inauguration. (Yes, it’s from a book of cut-out paper dolls, one of my lifelong obsessions!)  Now instead of this being the inauguration of the first African American President, let’s pretend that Michelle Obama was the one being sworn in as the first Female President of the United States and Barack was the First Gentleman.  So, my question to you is:

Are Michelle Obama’s fashion politics on point?

I think whether you believe Michelle Obama’s clothes at the inauguration convey the proper image to be taken seriously as a World Leader (who happens to be a woman) depends on your point of view about several related topics, such as: Dressing for Success in the Workplace; Power Dressing for Women; Do the Different Rules of Fashion for Men and Women Matter?; and Hillary Clinton’s Pantsuits.

All of our devoted readers probably realize by now that I, as the Editor of Project Motherhood, have some personal opinions on these topics.  And, you are correct if you believe that I view Michelle and Barack as being dressed perfectly for the Inauguration, even if their roles were reversed. Because I believe that women have the right to choose to wear beautiful clothing and love fashion and dress with femininity whenever they choose, even when they need to convey power and stature and intelligence. And I also believe that the day will soon come when a woman will actually be in the position of deciding what to wear as she is inaugurated as the First Woman President of the United States of America!  I also am quite sure that Ms. President will put a bit more thought into what she wears than what Barack or GW or Bill did!

Now, take a look at this next picture…and think about Hillary Clinton’s choice to begin wearing her pant suits once she decided to make a serious run at the presidency.

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So, would you “power dress” like Hillary if you were running for President? Or would you dress more like Michelle and stay true to your personal sense of style? 

By way of explanation for these colorful “uniforms”, Hillary often said she didn’t want her choice of clothing to become the topic during her campaign; she wanted the ISSUES to be the topic. And in that sense, we can’t blame her, right? None of us want to be diminished by people determined to judge us by superficial criteria; we want to be heard!  But, did these pantsuits actually succeed in changing the topic to the issues, or did people talk about her pantsuits MORE than they ever did about her previous style of clothing?

Now, to further evaluate Hillary’s fashion choices, are you aware of the controversy surrounding Hillary’s last minute cancellation of her Vogue Magazine article and photo shoot that was planned with world-renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz during her campaign for President?  And are you aware of how furious the original “Devil” who wears Prada (Vogue Editor Anna Wintour) was with Hillary and her political handlers for cancelling?  Just read these words Ms. Wintour published in her Editor’s Post for the issue that Hillary bailed on:

“Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that Hillary Clinton, our only female president hopeful, had decided to steer clear of our pages at this point in her campaign for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying.” Mannish? Ouch.

And that wasn’t all.  Wintour goes on to say, “This is America, not Saudi Arabia. It’s also 2008: Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men.” [Boardrooms filled with Men, Binders filled with Women…My my, how far we have come! dhc] And Wintour concludes, “Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.”

So, is it important to dress appropriately when you are in the public eye? Yes, for men AND for women. Are men’s professional clothing choices more limited? Yes. But ask me if I care?  Do I tell men whether their obsession with sports is worthy of their intellect? No, I don’t. (Actually, I have that obsession, too, along with paper dolls!) So don’t tell me that I can’t be obsessed with fashion OR sports and still be taken seriously.  I am staunchly unapologetic about my love of both!

Now let’s look at Sarah Palin.

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Looks pretty presidential, huh?  (We’re just judging the clothing here, not the points of view!) Her clothes look professional, feminine, EXPENSIVE. Yeah, she took a lot of crap for how much money was spent on her new Power Wardrobe. But hey, do you think Obama’s suits were cheap?  Or Romney’s? And didn’t Sarah need to look appropriate to run as Vice President? Gives more food for thought, right?

And then there is former Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her Pin Diplomacy:

This powerful woman actually gained the attention of world leaders each and every time she appeared in public, once they came to realize that she used her jewelry, in the form of pins, to send subtle or not so subtle messages about her frame of mind going into negotiations. The pin shown in the photo above was her first statement made with jewelry, directed at Dictator Saddam Hussein, whose government controlled press had just bashed Albright in the morning newspaper, calling her “an unmatched clamor maker” and “an unparalleled serpent” for daring to criticize one of Hussein’s refusals to comply with UN inspections of their weapons program.

In her book Read My Pins, Albright described her thoughts before an important meeting being held shortly after this event… “What to Wear?”  AH YES, just like a woman, LOL! And indeed, she decided to wear her now famous serpent pin! Now isn’t that the way to call a snake a snake?! But did anyone accuse her of being a lightweight female because she used her fashion sense to make a statement? Not hardly. In fact, it added another dimension to her negotiating skills and another weapon to her nonverbal arsenal.

All of this critiquing brings me back to Project Motherhood when Allison got that call from Diane Sawyer’s Administrative Assistant, proposing a next day interview about one of our hot topic blog posts, to possibly be shown on Nightly News.  Did we immediately begin to brainstorm about all the issues that could be discussed and how to answer both anticipated questions as well as not so anticipated questions? Of course!  But was one of our first questions the proverbial “What to wear?!” Also of course!  And then Allison and I immediately turned on the news to see exactly what all those powerful women were wearing while sitting in their Anchor Chairs.  And in fact, they all dressed like women and they all looked great! (Exactly the same way the future Ms. President looks in my mind!)

So, my lovely Mamas, what do you think?  Do “clothes make the woman” differently than “clothes make the man”?  Are you comfortable with that? Do you use your wardrobe to express yourself? Tell us how! And tell us what you would wear if you were being sworn in as Ms. President!  (Maybe we need to get Prada to make you some beautiful designer binders embossed with the Presidential Seal for the occasion!)

Fashionably yours,



Albright, Madeleine. Read My Pins. (2009). Harper Collins, New York, NY.

Wintour, Anna. 2008. ”Letter from the Editor” in Vogue, February 2008. “”: (Access: 20 April, 2009)


  1. Laurie Klatscher says:

    It’s interesting to think about how far we’ve come in terms of “power” dressing for women, which I think of as somewhat equivalent to “grown-up” dressing. It used to be a tricky feat to accomplish a style that was beautiful, appropriate, but not frumpy (remember those over-sized pearl earrings and boxy, heavily shoulder-padded suits?). I’m sure Hilary thought she could skirt (via pantsuit) the whole style issue, and while the notion of a uniform can be useful in theory, it came off as weak in practice: Really, you and your fashion advisors settled on THAT? The idea of creating a style (on one’s own or with help) is that you come up with something that is wonderful and YOURS and then you don’t have to think about it. But the notion of skipping the “think about it” stage just seems like denial, lazy even, especially now that there are truly lovely ensembles, including pantsuits, out there. Hilary is guilty of the sin of fashion omission. Michelle on the other hand, rocks it. When she is president I hope she keeps her fashion sense, but loses the overdone eye make-up. I’ve seen enough false eyelashes on women in the public eye to last me a lifetime. But hey, it’s a free country. **.**

    • Thanks for your ever-enhancing comments on my work, Laurie. Maybe a guest post is in your future? 🙂

      Also, just wanted to add that I am dedicating this Editor’s Post to my very talented, intelligent, capable, and lovely daughter and her Gregory friends for showing me the future of the woman’s movement! Makes a Mama proud!


  2. Laurie Klatscher says:

    Makes a godmama proud, too.

    A guest post, eh..?

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