Fashion

The Senator’s New Clothes: Exploring the Style of Politics

Fashion

The Senator’s New Clothes: Exploring the Style of Politics

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Discussions of fashion and politics can be precarious, written off by the assumption that fashion is frivolous whereas politics are serious. Admittedly, most discussion of fashion and politics fall into the frivolous; how many style galleries of Michelle and Middleton do we need to see? But the fashion of politics is significant. Not only is it a measure of our culture’s ideals of power and gender (Angela Merkel’s cleavage), it is measured: don’t think for a second that politicians, and the people that put them in the frame, aren’t carefully considering the image they’re presenting.

Christina Logothetis is a Washington-based image consultant and fashion blogger for The Style of Politics. Christina is very smart and insightful and so I asked her to walk me through some of today’s central issues with regards to political style: Do politicians have stylists? Why do we critique Hillary Clinton’s style more than we ever critiqued Bill’s? What’s trending this 2012 campaign? Here’s our discussion, just in time for election day (vote!):

Could you tell me a little about the origins of your blog, The Style of Politics?
Its origins go back to 2009 when I was at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the image consulting program there. I’d started to think about what I was going to do with the certificate and what the space was for me in fashion. Coming from Washington, it became clear to me that there was nobody writing about what women in politics were wearing in a way that other women in politics or people that were interested in becoming involved in politics could actually read and glean something constructive and useful from.

There were people writing very serious academic criticism—look at Robin Givhan with the Washington Post—and there were a lot of bloggers writing a range of very critical, snarky, funny things. But there was no one writing in the fashion blog space about political women in a way that they could apply it back into their actual closets. That was a niche that I wanted to fill.

What kind of work do you do as an image consultant?
As an image consultant, I’ve worked with individual private clients, their personal wardrobes. I do personal shopping, closet editing, and organization. Some of my clients are in the political space or are preparing to move into the political space.

Do politicians all have image consultants and stylists? At what level would we find that kind of control and secondary opinion?
It’s two questions—because virtually none of them really admit it. Certainly I would never reveal the name of one of my clients because that’s not my business.

When it came out on the campaign trail that Sarah Palin had been given a stylist to go shopping for her, that was a huge controversy. Part of it had to do with the amount of money that the stylist spent on the wardrobe itself. For most politicians, if it comes out that they have a stylist, it’s considered frivolous. What you end up often seeing are other kinds of “helpers.” It’s relatively well known that Hillary Clinton has a close member of her staff who advises and coordinates her fashion choices. Of course, this staffer isn’t her stylist but is this very chic young woman who works with her and who sometimes helps her pick out her dress. It’s very well known that Michelle Obama had a close relationship with a boutique owner in Chicago who has been advising her about clothing for a very long time. There has to be more assistance going on behind the scenes then the general public is necessarily aware of. How much of that assistance is professional, I’m genuinely not sure.

You mostly focus on women in politics in your blog. Did you ever consider addressing men’s political style, or do you find it more important to discuss women?
I certainly have considered it and I have touched on men when there’s something interesting or relevant to say. The truth is that we as a Western society have already decided what the expected successful look is for a powerful man: a dark suit, a white shirt, a red tie, maybe some cufflinks, short, well-kept hair. It’s very standardized and men in politics know this and they pretty well stick to it. Whereas for women, whether because there’s simply more variation in women’s clothing in general or because we have fewer role models for women in the high echelons of political power—we don’t know what the powerful political woman looks like. Each woman has to find her own way to a look that is successful. There’s just more to write about there.

What do you think some of the most problematic discourses around women and fashion and politics are right now? Are there ways we could talk about it alternatively and more productively?
I think the discussion of fashion in politics becomes, as it would naturally be, very very closely linked to a discussion of the physical attributes of the candidate, and that’s true for women and men. So sometimes the discussion of fashion and fashion choices becomes a safer, less controversial way of being able to talk about and potentially attack how attractive a candidate is.

It happens on both ends of the spectrum: you’ll have a Sarah Palin or a Paul Ryan or a Kirsten Gillibrand, all very attractive people, and talking about their clothing becomes a proxy for talking about their looks. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see very negative attention given to people like Elena Kagan, like when she was going through her supreme court confirmation.

Unless you are a fashion blogger, the only context that I think it’s appropriate for the mainstream media to talk about what anyone is wearing is in terms of whether or not it was appropriate for the occasion. If the clothes don’t fit or if what they’re wearing is grossly inappropriate for the place that they’re in, that’s something to talk about. But don’t use it as a shield for calling someone hot or calling them ugly. Even fashion bloggers who are addressing the wardrobe critically shouldn’t be engaging in ad hominem attacks.

What are some of your style highlights from this campaign season?
Certainly when Paul Ryan was announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate in August, there were huge conversations about, you know: the suit didn’t fit, it was too big. That was also parcelled up with this discussion of “gosh, isn’t he so good looking and look at those blue eyes…”.

I don’t know if you caught the Al Smith dinner last month, but it’s white tie and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were there in tails and white tie, very formal outfits. And Romney gets up and says something like, “well, on the campaign trail you wear a lot of different stuff, sometimes you wear jeans, sometimes you wear a suit for a fundraising lunch, and there are all these wardrobe changes, but it’s nice to be here wearing what Anne and I wear at home.” That got a laugh.

I think this election has been notable for it’s lack of attention for the looks of the candidates by and large. Maybe it’s because of the economy, maybe because the election is very close, maybe because there isn’t a woman running we haven’t really had anything to say about, but it’s been a quiet election about fashion.

What do you think about Michelle Obama using the attention she gets for her wardrobe to talk about things like American manufacturing and designers?
I think that in terms of leveraging that attention, that’s exactly what she should be doing. As we saw in the Clinton White House, there is a limit to how much involvement a first lady can have in political issues without being perceived as overstepping her bounds. So if she’s able to take attention that she’s drawing to issues that she’s not actively pursuing, like her looks and her wardrobe, and she’s able to leverage that to a conversation she finds productive, that’s exactly the right approach.