Looking into the politics of this election’s much-discussed fashion
Over the summer, Hillary Clinton wore a Giorgio Armani jacket while giving a speech in April. The internet quickly responded, claiming that the jacket retailed for around $12,000, and was worn during a speech about income inequality. The New York Post can be credited with starting this initial rumor that spiraled into weeks-long memes about how out-of-touch Clinton is, with much of the criticism coming from her own voter base.
Like many of its stories, the illustrious New York Post skimped on fact-checking. Later reports would indicate that the jacket retailed for about half the price, closer to $7,000, and that Clinton did not in fact wear the jacket while giving a speech on income inequality.
Yet the fact still remained that clothing had officially entered the arena of this election season. While mainstream media has eschewed comments on both candidates’ hairstyles for fear of seeming sexist, the Armani jacket debacle could no longer be ignored. In fact, it was a perfect analogy for what this election season seemed to be proving: presidential candidates- they’re not just like us.
The everyman narrative has been at an all-time high this election season, with candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump relying on their perceived (performed?) “outsider” status to set them apart in the race. Though Sanders and his rumpled shirt collars have officially exited the election, Trump is still going strong.
Yet Trump is no everyman. While he claims to speak for the poor and working class with an agenda which includes bringing jobs back to America, his sartorial choices suggest otherwise. According to the New York Times, Trump has frequently donned Brioni suits on the campaign trail. Brioni, an Italian luxury suiting label, retails off-the-rack suits for about $7,000. It is also a rather bi-partisan label, counting President Obama as a frequent wearer.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, donned Ralph Lauren pantsuits at all three presidential debates, which were widely reported on, criticized and commended. Pantsuits by the American label generally retail at around $3,000.
So why does the media have such a fixation on what Clinton wears to do her job? In part because what Trump wears is boring. An article about Trump’s predilection for subdued suits does not make news the way that a report on Clinton’s rhinestone jacket does.
Reporting on Clinton’s outfits speaks to the newness of a presidential election where for the first time a woman is the nominee of a major party.
Before Clinton’s campaign, much of what fashion-related stories focused on was what potential first ladies were wearing. For the past three consecutive presidencies, the country waited with bated breath to see what Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Clinton herself would wear to their inaugural balls. (Jason Wu, Oscar de la Renta, and—again— Oscar de la Renta, respectively.) It is integral for the gowns of first ladies to be made by an American designer, a cue that Clinton seems to have carried into this election season.
It feels redundant here to remind the reader that men’s suits on these special occasions were paid almost no attention.
Yet to attribute the fascination with Clinton’s sartorial choices solely to sexism seems too straightforward of an option in such an election as this. It would be acceptable in a normal election, as when Sarah Palin was lambasted in 2008 for a wardrobe allegedly totaling $150,000.
But this election is different: Clinton has been accused of being everything from a liar to an elitist, with varying degrees of negativity implied. And while the scrutiny of her clothing has only intensified, coming to a head with the Armani jacket, little attention has been paid to Trump’s suit choices.
Much of this disparity has to do with what each candidate is attempting (with various degrees of success) to stand for.
When asked why they plan to support Trump, many voters respond that they admire his business savvy and his financial success. The middle-class white male voter, Trump’s main voter base, sees Trump as an aspirational figure. To vote for Trump is to vote for the promise that one day, I too may stand at the head of my own company. That I too may wear $7,000 suits. Suits from Italy, no less.
Clinton has chosen to drive home a clear narrative over the course of her campaign: a woman is the product of a poor childhood, risies through hard work to the illustrious political titles she has held, and culminated in her greatest achievement of being a grandmother. In an effort to distinguish herself from the liberal elite, Clinton has chosen to highlight her more “relatable” qualities, pantsuits aside.
The real question becomes not what the candidates will do for the country, but what they can stand for. Trump has taken on the role of the aspirational figure, the man with the beautiful shirts, while Clinton shows her cracks and crevices, becoming the woman who bought her Armani jackets throughout years of blood, sweat and tears.
What one wears is the first thing that one says about oneself. The clothing on our backs help communicate things about our culture, profession and economic status. Yet these non-verbal codes are a two-way street. They require that the viewer responds to clothing in the same way that the wearer intends.
Both candidates wear expensive clothing. Both candidates are wealthy professionals who can afford, and are in fact expected to wear such expensive clothing. So if we can set aside for a moment the obvious implicit sexism whenever an article is written about Clinton’s sartorial choices, perhaps we can understand a bit more about her voter base.
Perhaps the Clinton supporter is not looking for a grandmother to run this country. Perhaps instead she is looking for the woman who brokered peace deals, and traveled 956,733 miles as Secretary of State. Perhaps she is looking for Clinton to begin to tout the aspirational narrative, and prove herself to be the woman who can lead our country (in a $12,000 Armani jacket no less.)