Hillary Clinton speaks at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
Who really cares what Hillary Clinton is wearing?
That’s a rhetorical question. You might think you don’t care, but you do.
Believe me, I know. For the past six months, I promised myself that I would not deign to write about the former Secretary of State’s current wardrobe. I said that I’d rather read about Clinton’s policies than wax on about her jacket choices.
Yet here I am, doing just that. Why? Because “women who run for office are in a double bind,” explains Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which publishes non-partisan research on female candidates. “You have to be seen not only as qualified, but also likeable. That link doesn’t exist for men.” For women especially, charm cannot be separated from appearance.
As Clinton embarks on her second presidential campaign, the way she presents herself over the next several months might not get her elected – or rejected – but it could help up her likeability quotient. “Very few voters are going to base their decision on what a candidate is wearing,” says David Rosen, founder of Washington, D.C.-based consultancy First Person Politics. “But in a general sense, appearance-based cues do matter when they go wrong. Style tends to fade into the background when candidates are doing it right.”
Clinton’s style, however, has never been easy to ignore, probably because she’s lived the greater part of her adult life in the public eye. We were there for her parade of headbands, her rainbow of suits. Sometimes we sympathized with her mishaps, other times we reveled in them. But her style has always been a topic to scrutinize on both sides of the aisle.
Early on in this campaign, Clinton will spend time meeting with small groups of prospective voters rather than leading big rallies. She’ll need to look powerful and presidential, but also down to earth. Which means she can’t look too rich. “Fashion is often used as a status symbol,” Rosen says. “But you don’t want put up those sorts of barriers. You want to be more accessible.” During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney spent much of this early campaign period in jeans. How can Clinton come off as casual without looking false?
“Looking authentic and appropriate go hand in hand,” Kimmell says. “A candidate can’t look like they’re pretending to dress casual. They have to look true to themselves.” I suppose, for Clinton, that could mean dark denim instead of distressed. “Maybe a soft pant with a great blouse,” suggests Lilly Berelovich, president and chief creative officer of trend forecasting firm Fashion Snoops. “It doesn’t need to be a jean, but it doesn’t need to be uptight.”
It may be too late for Clinton to develop a signature public style, à la German chancellor Angela Merkel and her amazing Technicolor robe coat. The garish topper—which Merkel has worn multiple times over the past two decades—might not have made her a fashion plate, but it did say a lot about her character: That she’s frugal, that she’s playful, that she doesn’t care what other people think.
There might not be a robe coat in her closet, but Clinton surely has things she likes to wear in those increasingly rare moments when she’s not being followed by film crews or journalists or photographers. “Some of that reality needs to be mixed in to her [public] wardrobe,” says Berelovich. But what is Clinton’s reality? Here’s hoping we find that out over the next few months, because then I’d really have something to write about.