June 18, 2014

Commentary: The power of style for women at the top

When you think about it, who better, really, to use as role models than women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand?

The publication of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Hard Choices” has proved a predictably exciting opportunity for Clintonologists, 2016 election obsessives and pundits to revisit all sorts of issues that otherwise may have been considered, if not resolved, including the whole hair brouhaha.

As it happens, that was brought up by the author herself, who got a fair amount of prepublication mileage from joking about an alternative title suggested by a Washington Post reader: “The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair.”

The subtext being, of course, the shared joke about how absurd it is for anyone to be talking about her hair instead of serious stuff.

This “ain’t it ridiculous we care about what power women wear, not what they do” attitude is also being parodied in a new blog called that uses the tropes of women’s mags to mock both the forms themselves and the idea that anyone should pay attention to such things.

It’s easy, while reading the blog and listening to Clinton, to want to join in with the laughter and eye-rolling, and cry: “Yes! It is ridiculous. Why don’t we stop all this nonsense?”

Because we shouldn’t. Because when you think about it, it isn’t nonsense at all.

When you think about it, who better, really, to use as role models than women like Clinton, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand?

While their lessons are primarily professional, there is no reason they should not be extended to appearance, too – especially when it comes to appearance in the workplace, or the public space. After all, whether we like it or want to admit it, appearance matters. (Simply consider the no-bald-president-except-Eisenhower rule, and the recent research about CEOs being taller than 90 percent of the population.)

So, where better to look for examples of how to function in that context than women who have had to think through how their image affects perception and relationships in traditionally all-male environments; who have been widely photographed and have had almost every wardrobe choice recorded; who lead busy lives and need clothes that are functional and comfortable? Who have, to a certain extent, made the decisions for us?

It certainly makes more sense, when you think about it, than, say, using Jennifer Lawrence or Nicole Kidman or Rihanna as a model – especially if the “you” looking at them is over 25 and not involved in pop culture.

Even the women who have become fashion paragons because of a noncelebrity public role – Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Cambridge – are largely women in symbolic positions for whom dressing is a mode of diplomatic expression. Do the same rules apply to those who have a more professional voice? Arguably not.

By contrast, much could be learned from the wardrobe strategy of, say, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, or Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, or Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo or Mary Barra of General Motors. Though they all dress well, they barely utter a sartorial word – most probably because of the fear of not being taken seriously. And in doing so, they perpetuate the problem. The way to neuter the issue is to embrace it and move on.

When it comes to men, this is exactly what occurs. Bill Clinton famously answered the boxers-versus-briefs question on MTV without blinking; Barack Obama discussed his suit choices with Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. It doesn’t detract from the big issues. It simply acknowledges a basic reality: Everyone gets dressed, and there is reason behind the reality we see.

Much is made of the clothing double standard, and how it is unfair to women in power because they are constantly critiqued while men are allowed to get away with wrinkles and gray hair and the same suit (or what looks like the same suit) for days in a row. But the real double standard is why world leaders and captains of industry are expected to set, and feel the responsibility for setting, the sartorial standards for only one sex.

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