Hillary Rodham Clinton owns the joke about her fashion choices – and it’s working
Hillary Rodham Clinton, candidate for US president, has been making jokes about fashion. They have not exactly been rib-cracking laugh lines, but they have been knowing, droll, even a bit silly. But mostly, they have not been defensive.
Instead, Clinton has gone on the offensive by finding humour in her fashion foibles and beauty regimen. Sometimes she takes up the shtick of her critics and makes it her own. Or she recognises the joke and tells it before others have the chance. She long ago found a timeless aesthetic that works for her: pantsuit (preferably with matching blouse), blond bob, statement necklace, sensible heels. Now she has taken full ownership of it.
The fashion monster has – for the moment – been wrestled into submission. Clinton stands victorious. She recently put the stake in her tormentor on Roosevelt Island in New York as she delivered her first big campaign speech. There she stood, in her new royal blue silk suit, making cracks about dyeing her hair.
“All our presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow greyer and greyer,” Clinton said. “Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States. And one additional advantage: you won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been colouring it for years.”
The image of her against a backdrop of cerulean blue sky with the cheeky comment about her hair to make a statement about comfort, familiarity and confidence – at least in the realm of public presentation. Here was Clinton laughing about her hair in a manner that was not about the pressures on women to be young, thin and Barbie-doll attractive.
Her speech acknowledged a bit of vanity, indulgence and stagecraft. It was an everywoman comment – self-conscious to be sure, but not fraught with feminist theory.
The light-hearted observation took direct aim at a topic raised by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh during the 2008 campaign: “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis? And that woman, by the way, is not going to want to look like she’s getting older, because it will impact poll numbers.”
Clinton’s joke addressed that question before it could become an issue, again. Because surely it would.
Her suit was designed by Ralph Lauren, who is known for his celebration and elevation of Americana. On her biggest campaign event so far, she could have shopped her closet. Instead, she had her own private little fashion moment.
Fashion is now working for Clinton – as a pleasure, an aesthetic proposition, as well as a campaign symbol.
In 2012, while serving as the US secretary of state, she faced the public in an official capacity without make-up and wearing her once-maligned eyeglasses. Observers commented and debated the professionalism of her appearance. She eschewed the standard accoutrements of the female professional class.
When asked about her natural look, she laughed and noted she’d reached a stage in life when she felt empowered to dress as she pleased. Indeed, admitting that she had made a considered decision about her appearance – and decided to ignore all the unwritten rules – was a kind of victory for personal style in the political realm.
Clinton is now using her much-discussed and undiminished love of a brightly-coloured pantsuit as a fundraising device. From her Senate campaign to her first presidential race, she has made cracks about her affection for the practical ensemble. These jokes framed her as a no-frills, serious-minded politician with a uniform – albeit one that came in every colour of the rainbow.
Now, she’s still making jokes, but this time they aim to cash in. Supporters can buy a red “everyday pantsuit tee”, for US$30.
To deflect the barbs about her style, Clinton used comedy as a defence. But through the jokes and the one-liners, she built her own fashion vocabulary, and she’s redefining them on the public stage.