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In the Ballot Box Style Plays a Hand With Voters

Forget the New Hampshire primary today - if the presidential vote were to be held now, the winner in the political style stakes would be Hillary Clinton.

Forget the New Hampshire primary today — if the presidential vote were to be held now, the winner in the political style stakes would be Hillary Clinton.

Of course, that excludes former model Carla Bruni, French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s reported new paramour. But who would come in second? Most likely Argentina’s former first lady and new president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a leader who is not about to give up her designer clothes and daily 45-minute salon visits in favor of prim suits.

“My favorite is Ms. Clinton,” Karl Lagerfeld said, “because you have no real idea what she is wearing. She is so clever and so brilliant that you see only her face — but also what she wears is right, you never really look at it because one is fascinated by her intelligence. But there is never a gimmick or bad detail either.”

Even though 12 women are heads of state, more than at any time in history, these days female politicians clearly need more than a solid platform to stand on — they also need just the right shoe, skirt length, cleavage-free top and perfectly styled hair. Superficial as the appearance issue is, in light of the war in Iraq, Pakistan’s unrest, Kenya’s ethnic strike, world hunger, global warming and nuclear armament, it will no doubt be a factor in the American presidential race, just as it was in the Argentine contest.

With cameras always at the ready in this YouTube society, politicians now know any dressing down will be well-documented, as Clinton learned after dancing in her bathing suit with her husband on the beach years back. Perhaps that’s why she now tends to stick to her ever safe and tasteful pantsuits. After all, the one time she didn’t, wearing a cleavage-revealing top last summer on the Senate floor, she was beaten up for it.

But Oscar de la Renta, who as fashion’s ambassador to the White House makes a habit of dressing all political parties, still wishes the presidential candidate would loosen up a bit more. He said he jokes with Clinton about wanting to live to see her in a strapless dress.

Kidding aside, he said, “I think there is a great deal of male chauvinism in this country. It’s time for all of us to assess the individual more intelligently and not think, ‘This is a woman, this is a man,’ to think of the abilities and preparedness a person has.”

Maybe — but that might take a while. Fashion insiders were more than willing to weigh in on their style views of female political leaders. Lagerfeld might like Clinton, for instance, but added, “Ms. [Angela] Merkel [German chancellor], who is also a brilliant woman, likes bright colors too much and her pants are not well cut. You look at the look and in that position, that’s dangerous. I loved Ms. [Cécilia] Sarkozy’s look –— but she is gone and she was a first lady, not a politician. I always thought Benazir Bhutto very beautiful and by the looks of what they wear in her part of the world, she was stunning.”

Clinton’s fellow Democrat, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a reported fan of Giorgio Armani suits, got the thumbs-up from Donna Karan. But all in all, Karan doesn’t think appearance affects popularity. The designer, who featured a fictitious female president in a 1986 advertising campaign, said, “I really don’t think it’s a question of male or female — the media makes that an issue.”

Critiquing a woman’s appearance may be more of an inherent impulse. “How many guys say to each other, ‘Beautiful suit’?” Karan asked.

Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan would like the fashion factor to be zilch. “I prefer my political figures to be completely devoid of style. If they look as if they are concerned with their appearance in any kind of self-indulgent way, then I would not vote for them. Right now I am voting for Hillary next year. If she suddenly starts getting all fashion-y, then she can kiss my vote goodbye. Politicians are public servants: They need to dress with self-denying restraint….It is, however, important for a politician to have her own look and stick to it. We, the general public, need them to be clearly distinguishable from one another. Politics is confusing enough already without those gals copying each other’s signature look.”

Botox is another no-no, according to makeup artist Bobbi Brown. “Some women in politics are dipping into fillers and Botox much too much. It’s important for women in the public eye to look normal and human,” she said. “This is the campaign of being genuine.”

And while it might appear to still be a male chauvinist political world, women aren’t the only ones whose appearances are scrutinized. Clinton’s key Democratic competitors after last week’s Iowa showdown, Barack Obama and John Edwards, have also taken some heat — Obama for opting to lose the necktie while campaigning and Edwards for a much-publicized $400 haircut. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to have wised up after her post-Hurricane Katrina shopping spree at Ferragamo. Before jetting off to last month’s Mideast Donors conference, she reportedly used her VIP shopping perks for additional privacy after flipping through the St. John Knits at Saks Fifth Avenue’s store in Chevy Chase, Md.

Like many politicians, Rice tends to stick with the unofficial Beltway uniform of conservative suits in camera-ready hues, but she isn’t afraid to whip out the knee-length boots from time to time.

Even Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the ultimate Iron Lady, always traveled with purse in hand and was not above using her slim legs or some old-fashioned flirting to woo diplomats in her favor — leading even some male opponents to call her “sexy.” Another conservative dresser, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, wore broaches that were not merely accessories, but emblematic conversation pieces to raise topics she was keen to discuss with other diplomats. Harper Collins is planning a book about her pins to be released next year.

Laura Liswood, co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders, said, “Part of the challenge for women is conveying femininity and leadership — those in fact may be contrary things. They want to look very professional but there’s no way they are going to wear a pinstripe suit with a little bow tie.”

Actually, Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey has been photographed in a jacket with a loosely knotted necktie, but she also can get away with punkish streaked highlights atop her sleek dark-haired bob. Germany’s Merkel — whom many saw for the first time after President Bush gave her an unsolicited shoulder massage at the 2006 G8 summit — plays it safe with pantsuits. Liswood said, “She dresses in quite a matter-of-fact way and one would say of her that she is matter-of-fact.”

Designer Peter Som said, “Anyone who has been massaged by Dubya can wear anything she wants in my book. She might want to invest in Margiela-sized shoulder pads in case it happens again.”

In truth, Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly showed off his bare chest fishing last month, but Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo knows enough to be well-covered when surfing.

Of course, the irony of the image-conscious Western world runs counter to Scandinavia and parts of the Far East, where women like Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Macapagal-Arroyo are heads of state. Before she was assassinated last month, Bhutto, the former Pakastani prime minister, was known to be a controversial, outspoken figure, with her appearance having little bearing on the public’s opinion of her. Given the graveness of her country’s financial crisis and recent unrest, stories about Burma’s Aung San Su Kyi center on the issues at hand.

In the U.S., meanwhile, it appears there is no level of polish that isn’t criticized. Former presidential candidate Bob Kerrey said, “Showing up in an Hermès tie at a rally in New Hampshire is not likely to win you many votes,” while Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose family’s all-American style has been dissected by the media for decades, said after being elected Maryland’s lieutenant governor, the first lengthy article about her addressed how her lipstick had faded and she didn’t appear to be wearing rouge. The second one questioned why she was wearing flats.

“When my father [Robert F. Kennedy] was attorney general, he once rolled up his sleeves and didn’t wear a tie, and he was criticized. Appearance has always been a question. It’s not a matter of should it be — it is what it is,” she said. “George Washington wrote a whole book about appearance and how to stand to look like a leader. There’s a reason throughout history there have been crowns and gowns.”

Another Washington insider, Ana Marie Cox, time.com’s Washington editor, said, “In America, it definitely has an impact in our largely visual culture. What’s unfortunate is it can be overly critical. Women and men are not held at the same standards. I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else. A friend and I have a guilty pleasure of critiquing Hillary’s pantsuits after each debate. I think she should not wear all the same color. I know it’s slimming, but it’s too much of a big block of color.”

The Clinton camp — including even Bill Clinton — has been quick to compare the former first lady to Argentina’s Kirchner, whose husband, Nestor, was the most recent president. But with her glamorous looks and designer clothes, Kirchner is often stacked up against another historical first lady, Eva Perón. Kirchner is savvy enough, though, to avoid being photographed shopping, said Louise Belfrage, news editor for the WIP (Women’s International Perspective), an online news service. Style-conscious residents are on to her personal indulgences, however, given that one pair of Kirchner’s $150 shoes are equivalent to an Argentine worker’s monthly salary and that “is very difficult to swallow,” Belfrage said. Never mind that two Venezuelans pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of trying to smuggle $800,000 into Argentina to pad Kirchner’s election campaign.

Reached in Buenos Aires, Belfrage said Kirchner is not ashamed of reports of her pricy attire, extensive beauty routine and daily 45-minute salon visits and has used them to her advantage. “She has said, ‘People comment about my clothes, hair and makeup — as if that has any importance in my politics. OK, I wear a lot of eye shadow.'”

There is a line to be drawn, according to Belfrage. “When Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel, no one spoke about what kind of clothes she wore. There was never this obsession with style there is today,” she said. “In India, do you think they talked about Sonia Gandhi’s clothes? It just seems absurd.”

Apparently, a few feel otherwise, considering how presidential candidate Edwards made a crack about Hillary Clinton’s coral-colored jacket during the Democratic debate in July. And Obama has earned his share of ink for his cover gigs on Men’s Vogue and GQ. Contrarily, there aren’t enough American female politicians for there to be a uniform, said Cox of time.com.

Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, told WWD that many studies about women in the workforce — regardless of their jobs — have proven that women who look better seem to have greater opportunities. “Clothes obviously make a difference. Women running for office are very aware of how they look,” Ferraro said. “I don’t think you will get a vote because you look good, but I do think there are people out there who will judge what a women is wearing and will vote against them.”

Isaac Mizrahi said he thinks “appearance is everything whether it’s a female or a male politician.” Once privy to a list that was sent to politicians to highlight what voters like to see their politicians dressed in, he said double-breasted suits were a misstep for men and dangling earrings were off limits for women, “which is a shame because there’s nothing more aging than a post earring.”

“I know that if I don’t like someone’s appearance I won’t consider getting to know them on any level, let alone vote for them for office. I think Hillary looks good now. She looks better than she did 10 years ago,” Mizrahi said. “She’s someone who has found a style, and whose style the rest of the world has finally accepted. I remember people used to make fun of her for changing her hair a lot and now it seems like everyone changes their hair more often. That’s Sen. Clinton’s influence.”

Brown, a self-described huge Obama fan, said, “In a way, Michelle Obama is the epitome of what modern politicians should wear. She always dresses simply and very safe but she looks pulled together. You don’t notice her clothes as much as what she says.”

Doo-Ri Chung is more concerned about a female leader’s policies than her attire. “I like women who are strong and intelligent as opposed to someone who wears an amazing bright-colored designer dress. But I certainly don’t want to see someone looking dowdy.”

Time.com’s Cox said politicians’ knack for pantsuits and pearls and their disinterest in using clothes as self-expression may be a cloak of sorts. “Politicians don’t want to tell us who they are in any case.”

There’s something to be said for keeping with customary attire, like head scarves coordinated with loosely fitting clothes, as proven by Africa’s first elected female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Mozambican Prime Minister Luisa Diogo and the late Bhutto. Belfrage said, “Appearance is much more important than we would like it to be or even acknowledge that it is. Even though people vote for or against a set of political decisions, people consider if a person seems conservative, strong or has integrity. You read that from appearance.”

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