BREAKING NEWS : Fort Wayne police make arrest in killing of James Hines on Lewis Street Full Story

The Political Runway: Fashion, gender and politics in America

There's more that goes into how Americans pick their politicians than where they stand on the issues. It's why politi...

Posted: Feb 16, 2018 5:29 PM
Updated: Feb 16, 2018 5:29 PM

There's more that goes into how Americans pick their politicians than where they stand on the issues. It's why politicians fill out March Madness brackets and release Spotify playlists. It's why they talk about their upbringing, marriages and families.

It's also why they can be so thoughtful with what they wear.

Fashion in politics is often dismissed as superfluous and unworthy of serious thought and consideration. But the clothing politicians and their spouses decide to wear is ultimately a choice about how they'd like to present themselves publicly. Intentionally or not, what they wear sends a message.

"I think that there are a lot of times when people make their choices about clothing purely as a matter of aesthetics," said Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, in an interview for the COVER/LINE podcast. "But I think there are equally as many instances when people make choices based on a serious concerted effort to communicate in a very specific way, and to deliver a nonverbal message."

First lady Melania Trump sparked questions about her own non-verbal message when she arrived in all white to the State of the Union address last month amid accusations her husband had an affair with a porn star who was paid to keep quiet. Melania's communications director called speculation about the symbolism of her designer clothing that night "silly scrutiny." But white was one of the colors worn by suffragettes, and it's been worn more recently by women including Democratic lawmakers to Trump's 2017 address to a joint session of Congress and Kesha just days earlier to perform "Praying," a #MeToo anthem that predated the movement by about three months.

Although it's women in politics who are most often scrutinized for their clothing, men aren't immune. President Trump's ill-fitting suits and long ties have become as much of his caricature as his hair, and during the 2016 race, Rick Perry's new glasses were criticized for being a too-obvious attempt to rebrand as more intellectual, and Marco Rubio got made fun of for his boots.

But the difference in how we view the clothing of men and women in politics is an extension of "the difference between the way men and women dress generally," Givhan said.

While male politicians are limited in what they wear, sticking mostly to suits and ties, women have more options.

"When it comes to the way that women dress, there is a lot more leeway, there's a lot more variety," she said. "There's a lot more of an opportunity to dress in a way that reflects your personality, your mood, just whatever might delight you on a given day. And there is also a tendency to presume that any conversation about women's attire is very superficial and frivolous."

First ladies know this as well as anyone. Before Melania, other first ladies faced criticism for their wardrobes, like Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known for her pricey frocks. "You can imagine this did not go over well in the press, and it upset her husband," Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, told COVER/LINE. And Calvin Coolidge seemed worried his wife, Grace, known for her style, would overshadow him.

"She was so popular that her husband, who was much more of an introvert, did not want her to present herself in public as much as she did," Perry said. "So, he actually cut back on some of her public statements and her public appearances."

More recently, the wardrobe of Hillary Clinton, as the only woman who's dressed as both a first lady and presidential candidate, took on a historic nature.

"I think people were so obsessed with what she was wearing and how she looked and how she carried herself was because I think culturally, as a country, we were having this really messy public conversation," said Givhan. "What does power on a woman look like?"

As more women are elected to office, we could see the way we think about their clothing change.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, a costume designer for "Veep," said she noticed women in politics would often try to "blend into the man's world," but credits Michelle Obama in part with breaking that mold.

"I think a lot of women in politics try to play it safe, or at least did try to play it safe," she said. But in preparing to dress Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the role of a woman vice president and president for "Veep," Felix-Hager spent time in Washington, including at the Obama White House, and saw young staffers, especially those who worked for the first lady, wore a lot more colors and accessories.

"I think Michelle Obama definitely had an influence on young women in that city, which I found interesting and fun, as opposed to, I had done a show years before called 'The West Wing,'" she said. "I wasn't the designer on that show, but the color palette of that show was very specific as far as grays and blues, and very muted."

To dress Louis-Dreyfus, they made up their "own rules," something Felix-Hager called "freeing and liberating."

"To play up her femininity but not throw it in your face, also, to use it as a position of power because being a woman in Washington, there are so few of them," she said. "I mean there's more lately but I think it's an opportunity to sort of say, 'I'm a woman. I can still like fashion, I can still wear color, I can still be appropriate.'"

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 118322

Reported Deaths: 3591
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion21502767
Lake10688323
Elkhart6707111
St. Joseph6619113
Allen6330205
Hamilton4938109
Vanderburgh378131
Hendricks2766124
Monroe265536
Tippecanoe256613
Johnson2352124
Clark225957
Porter219947
Delaware200162
Cass19559
Vigo186827
Madison170375
LaPorte149141
Floyd139664
Warrick138242
Howard132663
Kosciusko125917
Bartholomew118457
Marshall101524
Dubois99919
Boone99146
Grant95134
Hancock94643
Noble93132
Henry81226
Jackson7739
Wayne77014
Morgan73438
Daviess68028
Shelby68029
Dearborn67528
LaGrange64011
Clinton62314
Harrison59224
Putnam58411
Gibson5355
Knox5289
Lawrence51629
Montgomery51121
DeKalb48811
White48714
Decatur45939
Miami4394
Greene42735
Fayette42313
Jasper4012
Scott39011
Steuben3907
Posey3460
Sullivan33812
Jennings31612
Franklin31325
Clay3085
Ripley3078
Orange28824
Whitley2826
Carroll27813
Adams2763
Wabash2728
Starke2717
Washington2701
Wells2674
Spencer2633
Jefferson2503
Huntington2473
Fulton2442
Tipton22822
Randolph2238
Perry22113
Jay1920
Newton17411
Owen1711
Martin1680
Pike1641
Rush1574
Vermillion1310
Fountain1292
Blackford1213
Pulaski1141
Crawford1100
Parke1072
Brown1043
Benton870
Ohio797
Union790
Switzerland690
Warren411
Unassigned0226

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 151802

Reported Deaths: 4746
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin27119607
Cuyahoga17554656
Hamilton13237315
Montgomery7938164
Lucas7343364
Butler6085111
Summit5366252
Warren311549
Marion311147
Mahoning3095281
Stark2913175
Pickaway267944
Lorain233386
Delaware230621
Fairfield213253
Licking194963
Columbiana194080
Wood192172
Trumbull1916132
Clark183940
Clermont174423
Lake164851
Greene149034
Medina147539
Miami146351
Allen146269
Portage116866
Mercer113218
Erie95947
Tuscarawas94120
Wayne94068
Richland92219
Ross89624
Madison84312
Darke80643
Geauga72649
Athens7242
Belmont72427
Hancock72010
Lawrence67122
Ashtabula66048
Shelby66010
Putnam61923
Auglaize6119
Sandusky58020
Huron5557
Union5512
Scioto5167
Seneca48814
Ottawa47130
Preble44515
Muskingum4383
Holmes3959
Jefferson3384
Henry33414
Defiance33012
Champaign3133
Logan3133
Clinton30213
Perry3009
Brown2922
Knox28815
Washington26223
Jackson2616
Morrow2612
Fulton2591
Hardin25713
Crawford2476
Ashland2464
Coshocton23411
Fayette2336
Highland2303
Williams2143
Wyandot21312
Pike2020
Gallia19613
Meigs17610
Guernsey1738
Hocking1679
Carroll1527
Adams1364
Van Wert1243
Monroe11018
Paulding1100
Harrison643
Morgan500
Vinton473
Noble340
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Overcast
59° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 59°
Angola
Overcast
57° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 57°
Huntington
Scattered Clouds
58° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 58°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
54° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 54°
Van Wert
Broken Clouds
54° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 54°
Few Showers Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events