After the State of the Union address in January, an editor suggested I do a blog post about Hillary Clinton’s headband and crack a joke about how it looked like it was “from Claire’s.”
Her headband seemed like the last thing worth caring about that night, but also, how could I criticize something she berated the media for focusing on? I didn’t want to care about her unfashionable hair accessories. I knew she deserved praise for her work much more than she deserved ridicule for something she clearly didn’t care about. But the beauty of my wish not to care is that it’s also how I really felt — and still feel. I used to care about and critique her clothes, years ago. But over time, her fashion apathy has become my fashion apathy — and when you’re trying to write a dozen blog items about clothing every day, public figures don’t have that effect very often. The difference between Hillary and the rest of them is that she spent years convincing us she shouldn’t have to care about her clothes, so we shouldn’t either.
When asked by CNN about the makeup-less photo of her in Bangladesh making the rounds this week, Hillary confirmed that her appearance is “just not something I think is important anymore.” Fox News aside, the world rejoiced over that sentiment. She “does not need to fret about having the right sort of career-enhancing wardrobe, haircut or makeup,” wrote Robin Givhan for the Daily Beast. “She could arrive for a diplomatic meeting wearing flip-flops and blue jeans and no one would doubt her authority.” Styleite’s Jada Wong responded simply with, “Yeah, she rules.”
Yet Hillary has had to work at getting us not to care about her clothes, because fashion was once a part of her public persona. She appeared on Vogue’s December 1998 cover, looking glamorous in a ballgown by Oscar de la Renta. Her style figured into that story, naturally, with Vogue declaring: “She’s settled on a look that’s good for her, serviceable but extremely becoming, a kind of uniform or habit, designed as much to deflect attention as to catch it. Her clothes work, but they work for her, never the other way around.” The message was that her clothes might not rule her life, but she wouldn’t be in Vogue if they completely didn’t matter.
The 2008 election may have been the turning point for the public’s perception of Hillary as a clothes-wearing individual. Suddenly, criticizing them wasn’t okay — her supporters wanted her to win so badly that they understandably didn’t want something as frivolous as her pantsuits of every color and awkward headbands to come between her and the Oval Office. She even turned down a Vogue feature during her presidential run out of a “fear of looking too feminine.”
When her presidential bid didn’t work out, public perception didn’t revert back to, oh, can you believe she wears that stuff? Vogue finally got to run that story it wanted on her in the December 2009 issue — but she did not pose for its cover wearing a designer ballgown.
In December of 2010, Hillary memorably tackled the media’s fixation on her clothing choices during a talk in Kyrgyzstan, when an interviewer asked about her favorite clothing designers. She replied, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”
Yet though that comment muffled the dialogue about her unstylish image, nasty comments about her clothes didn’t stop — but they were less tolerated. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn learned that the hard way when he told George Lopez, “Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender!” Adding, “No, I’m really serious, she wears pantsuits that are unflattering.” He also wondered why Hillary doesn’t “send a stronger message about American fashion.” Everyone from Salon’s Irin Carmon to Lady Gaga leapt to Hillary’s defense. While Carmon wrote for Jezebel, where she worked at the time, “Dear Tim Gunn: shut the fuck up,” Gaga said on The View: “You know, I think Hillary Clinton has more important things to worry about than her hemline.” Not caring about Hillary’s fashion had become a meme. Though it didn’t catch on as quickly as Texts from Hillary, it’s finally starting to really stick.
Hillary is the rare woman who always had the balls to wear whatever she wanted when everyone else was trying to get her to do something different. Her comments on CNN yesterday are sure to inspire fans who wish they, like her, didn’t feel pressured to look a certain way, as all women are. This line in particular stood out: “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now.”
I think we’re all relieved that after all of those pantsuit insults she’s finally getting the credit she deserves.