by Walter Thulin
In politics, fashion serves as a yet another medium for discussion. Until the 2008 election, the largest fashion-related questions revolved around who was going to wear a red tie and who a blue. Politicians would not have been criticized for clothing choice unless they appeared at the State of the Union in Hawaiian Shirts and flip-flops. The rule of thumb in Washington and on the campaign trail was to “fit in and dress boringly”.
Over the course of the ‘08 election, however, this laid back approach towards political fashion irrevocably changed. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s clothing became fair game for even reputable publications and often times received more attention than actual policy positions. The initial critique of Clinton and Palin’s clothing was almost always negative: Clinton was frequently described as a shrew while Palin was compared to a porn star.
Though the ‘16 election hasn’t been quite as nasty as ’08, fashion has remained a matter up for critique. Unlike ’08, however, both men and women have been subject to the blistering pen of the fashion critic. During Primary season, Business Insider made a foray into the world of fashion journalism by examining the Republican tendency to wear exclusively half-zip sweaters (a valid critique). It then transitioned during the General to critiquing Donald Trump’s overly long ties.
Notable is also the shift in criticism towards Clinton. As opposed to the ’08 election, when the Washington Post published an entire article about Clinton’s low cut blouse or when Fox claimed Clinton wore bright colors to solve a “likability problem,” the ‘16 election has been relatively free from sexist media commentary. Though in the ‘16 election season, smaller publications have continued to compare Clinton to Mao, or to label her a frumpy lesbian, larger media outlets have stepped away from this sort of commentary.
We are certainly paying more attention to the clothing choices of presidential hopefuls than we did in years past, and candidates, knowing this, have hired individual image consultants to help them with branding. Almost all the Republican hopefuls wore the half-zip sweater because image consultants said it made them look approachable. None of those candidates won the election, however. Instead, it went to the one hopeful who undoubtedly refuses to listen to a brand manager. Meanwhile, Clinton’s fashion manager’s largest success has been making sure that her candidate is never mentioned for her clothing but rather heard in terms of her policy decisions.
Despite media stepping away from overtly obvious double standards in candidate dress, these double standards still exist. The most viewed articles on Trump and clothing regard where he manufactures his line, while those most viewed about Clinton and clothing concern her best and worst looks. Although Esquire published an article claiming a candidate’s fashion sense could decide the election, the evidence remains one-sided. For Clinton, fashion is a barrier to overcome. For Trump, no one could care less.