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The power of the pantsuit

Miriam Baker

Posted on December 01 2019

Hillary Clinton, First Lady Portrait

When Hillary Clinton wore a pantsuit for her 2004 First Lady portrait, the move was considered “controversial.” Wives of former U.S. presidents wore feminine dresses of lace and silk — not pants. 


Fast forward to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign when her matching suit sets were synonymous with her image. Clinton fans even called themselves #PantsuitNation. 


The outfit may be a personal preference, but it’s also a political one. Female politicians can have great policies, but what a woman wears, unfortunately, affects how she is perceived — especially as a leader.


“The traditional men's suit remains the baseline uniform for political leaders, particularly in the Western world,” said Rebecca Halliday, a lecturer at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion. 


“And in this climate, the women's pantsuit has become a dress tool for female politicians to negotiate the male-dominated world of politics in a manner that communicates professionalism and demands respect, but is at the same time sartorially distinct from what men are wearing.”


The history of the pantsuit

Working Girls, film

Women didn’t always wear pantsuits on a public stage. Pants are traditionally men’s garments, and the idea of a lady wearing a masculine outfit was shocking for most of history.


While some women wore trousers as early as the 1900s for political reasons, pants largely remained a form of workware — especially factory work — until the 1960s. Respectable women were expected to wear skirts or dresses to outings.  


This was highlighted in the late 1960s when New York socialite Nan Kempner was denied entry to an upscale restaurant for wearing le smoking, the infamous 1966 Yves Saint Laurent suit design.


Saint Laurent’s creation was a play on men’s tuxedos, and was praised by many in the fashion industry as being revolutionary for women. Larger society, on the other hand, had a harder time accepting the suit. 


“On women, pants take away all of the subtlety that Western society has valued in female dress for hundreds of years,” clothing historian Deirdre Clemente wrote in The Conversation. “They play to society’s fears about what happens when women dress themselves and decide, on their own, what it means to be feminine.”


But despite pantsuit pushback, fashion designers marched on. 

By the mid 1970s, Giorgio Armani debuted a collection of unconstructed women’s suits. The garments were cut from menswear fabrics and became a “power uniform” for women well into the 1980s. The 1988 film Working Girl, full of padded shoulders and powersuits, further pushed this narrative into the mainstream. 


The association between pants and power continued in the 1990s, and took on a greater politician meaning.


In 1993, two U.S. senators protested the rule that forbids women from wearing pants on the job. Shortly after, the dress code changed to allow both men and women to wear suits in the senate. 


Today, U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren sports suits as she debates tax reform as does German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose colourful suits have been heavily documented. Former leader of Canada’s Green Party Elizabeth May is also known to rock pants while talking politics. 


How clothing affects the way women are seen 

Women are scrutinized more than men for their wardrobes, Halliday says — especially female politicians. This means they need to carefully consider the message they want to send with their clothing. 


“The trouble that Clinton ran into of course is that her pantsuits were seen as more feminine than men's suits, but at the same time, not feminine enough to make her seem approachable and attractive to her audience,” Halliday said.


“Thus encapsulating the Catch-22 that she constantly came up against in terms of either coming off as weak, but empathetic, or powerful but not likeable.”


One “wrong” outfit can cause a frenzy for female politicians. Former British Prime Minister Theresa May made headlines in 2016 over the cost of her trousers


Halliday points out that younger politicians, like U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, dress in more modern styles that include fitted dresses and A-line skirts. These are political statements, too.


“Often these outfits are completed with a blazer, but I do also see pictures of them in sleeveless attire with bare arms which to me communicates strength and work ethic,” she said.


Because politics has been a male-dominated space for so long, Halliday says whatever men wear is considered the norm, while whatever women wear stands out as an aberration from “tradition.”


“The fact that the media scrutinizes female politicians for their dress is also the result of a gender bias in political life that is skeptical of women's capacities to succeed as politicians, or that doesn't want women in politics at all.”

 

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