Fashion on the Campaign Trail 

Primary colors

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008

Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the [person].

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—Coco Chanel


Coco Chanel never figured on a world so thoroughly wired for public scrutiny when she made the distinction between dressing shabbily and dressing impeccably. These days, it doesn't matter. We gawk at both, obsessively. In this marathon of a presidential-election campaign especially, we're asking questions like never before about image and substance, sex and sexuality, race and power, as we try to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of the politicians who want to head our government. As we prepare to cast our ballots Tuesday, I give you the players and their costumes. Forget for a moment their views on Iraq, gun control, immigration, global warming, health care, abortion, education, taxation: What are the presidential candidates wearing as they compete for the White House?

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton. Much ado is being made about her pantsuits. Even though women have run for our nation's highest office before — from Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872 to Libby Dole in 2000 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 — presidential politics has long been a man's game, with fashion discussions limited to pricey haircuts, five-o'clock shadows and Al Gore's brown-versus-blue suit dilemma. Not since Shirley Chisholm appeared in bold '70s prints and fur-collared coats have a candidate's wardrobe choices been so dissected. At one point during the New Hampshire primary, a voter asked Senator Clinton if she felt any pressure about being a woman running for president. "Oh, no. Not at all," Clinton said in an ironic, deliberately quavery voice. That "not at all" gets at the crux of the matter, the conundrum of a woman who is a serious contender for the world's most visible political office in this most visible of times. She knows that we know that she knows the rules are different for her.

Desexualization of her femininity is the issue. As first lady, she favored conservative gowns and thick, matronly suits that padded her figure like swaths of bulletproof body armor (and who's to say enough layers of tweed and boucle couldn't stop rounds from a sniper's gun?). Sure, her colors were glorious jewel tones, but the cuts were strictly Victorian schoolmarm. Her champagne Oscar de la Renta gown for Bill's second inaugural ball in 1997 was a high-necked, long-sleeved, all-lace number, like a vacuum-wrapped doily. Her beaded violet Sarah Phillips gown swirled fantastically on the eve of the Clintons' first inaugural gala, as a triumphant Bill twirled her around the dance floor, but it revealed just a sliver of wrist. Would it have killed her to show some skin, people asked? Maybe. She seems to still be working that question out. And rightly so. A bit of cleavage peeks out and it makes headlines at the Washington Post.

These days, Senator Clinton is walking the line between cerebral Ice Empress and mannish Everywoman. Sometimes it's masculine, pinstriped blazers with sharp lapels, nothing too perfectly tailored or too sleek — approachability is key — with a scarf tucked in for a pop of bright color. Other times it's back to boucle as body armor. Other countries are comfortable with their women leaders as mother figures, such as the Philippines' Cory Aquino in her trademark soft yellows, or the U.K.'s veiled-pillbox-hatted, grandmotherly Queen Mum. But girlfriends and sexy policy wonkettes aside, we in America don't know what we want from our women in charge. Clinton went head to head with Obama in Las Vegas this month, in a black pantsuit layered over a fuchsia sweater, casual as a Talbots catalog. But when she won the New Hampshire primary, she was virtually steel plated, celebrating in a gray-brocade-print, mandarin-collared coat, with not a vulnerable collarbone in sight.

How to get the look: Boxy pantsuits from Talbots. Scarves, chunky beaded necklaces and pearl sets from Ann Taylor.

Barack Obama. He has gravitas, Obama, and he's charismatic as all get-out. He's also an elegant, elegant man. And good thing, because many still feel that the United States will not elect a black man to the presidency unless he has elegance and charisma to spare. Some might forgive Huckabee his slouchy suits, but as with Senator Clinton, the fashion margin of error is slimmer for Obama. His opponents simply have to show up dressed, while Obama must show up dressed to kill. He's the romantic, scholarly, pedigreed thinker who makes bloggers swoon, and as such he favors shades of blue, an aspirational color — the color chosen by those wishing to convey sincerity, integrity, intellect and responsibility; the color preferred by overachieving Harvard and Columbia grads the world over (which he is), superheroes, space-shuttle pilots and Eagle scouts. Even with shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, he looks debonair, never sloppy or overly accessorized with cuff links, handkerchiefs or other distracting suit flair. Even after getting his butt kicked by Hillary in New Hampshire, he rallied the troops in Nashua, exuding a melancholy grace in a silver-gray tie, a crisp white shirt and an impeccably tailored dark suit. He's been criticized, in fact, for appearing too stylish, too hip, too urbane, but those critics are ridiculous. Give me a brainy, progressive president in a slim charcoal suit, perfect white shirt and blue-striped tie (to complement his dreamy eyes and cafe au lait complexion) any day.

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