Hillary Clinton is my fashion icon. She is my Chanel, my New York Fashion Week, my WWD, my Dolly Parton in a coat of many colors. I love her pantsuits. I love all of them, especially the black Oscar de la Renta ones with their sharp jacket lines. But more importantly than the pantsuits themselves, I love what they mean. Hillary has divined Buddha-level truths that are revealed in how she dresses, and I want everyone to worship at the altar of her glorious pantsuit world order.
What Hillary did with pantsuits was nothing short of genius.
She had worn suits and jackets among other fashion choices in those early years, but as her leadership was tempered by opposition, she took the enemy’s arrows and wove them into a standard uniform of a simple tailored jacket and matching slacks. You want to focus on her ankles? Here’s a pantsuit. You want to call her pejoratives like “dyke” for claiming power? Here’s another pantsuit. You want to assume things about her as a parent or wife? Here’s another pantsuit.
Those brilliant pantsuits were the new Girl Scout uniform meets futuristic unitard meets Wonder Woman bracelets. They deflected. They defined. They won.
Hillary didn’t invent the pantsuit or its usefulness to working women, but from her massive platform, women like me watched her distill gendered expectations and the entire sartorial vocabulary of powerful men into one distinct image that said everything that needed to be said. By the time she moved on from her role as First Lady, she wore it on the campaign trail, in her Senate office, on the streets of New York City following 9/11, on tarmacs before and after flying over 950,000 miles as our most traveled Secretary of State, in the most important hallways of the world, from daybreak until midnight. Hillary’s pantsuits stared down Putin, pundits, and perpetual dirty pool. In response, Hillary’s pantsuits said power, efficiency, urgency; I’m ahead of you. They said, I’m here, and I’m here to work.
We watched her evolve into this: from a first lady in pearls who reinvented the position of presidential spouse to a powerful leader in her own right. In pantsuits.
This mastery against all odds is something I admire and I want to replicate. It’s a gift to women like me who will never reach Hillary heights in leadership but who nonetheless want unfettered agency in a still-sexist world, and who want to change those conditions.
It’s also a stunning example of disarming an enemy. The way Hillary guided this conversation was an object lesson in control. Knowing she’d never be free from attacks and scrutiny that would play out through her appearance, she targeted the sights onto one question. Instead of a litany of hair/cankles/skirt length questions, or assessment of where she fell on the “appropriately feminine” clothing scale, she forced the debate to the singularity of “what color pantsuit is she wearing today?” In doing so, Hillary degendered the playing field, making her appearance effectively recede to a question almost as innocuous as “what color is his tie today?”
She let them have something: the pantsuit. She gave them one thing to objectify, and in doing so, she controlled the conversation. Hillary owned the pantsuit singularly, and then when she veered from it, glamorously and casually—and yes, with pearls, because pearls are beautiful when they are your choice—even that was in her control, on her terms. When you are known for your pantsuits, you can easily disarm by simply wearing a tunic.
Most of us don’t have this Art of War, Diplomacy, and Pantsuits figured out, and we can learn so much from it. You know, Hillary titled her 2014 memoir Hard Choices to speak a common truth about the human experience, about political life, and about the way we all shape and interpret character. We make so many choices, with the first one every day being what to wear, and it’s still infinitely more fraught for women than it is for men.
I’m choosing the pantsuit, at least what the Clinton pantsuit means about narrowing distractions and taking control of obstacles, in order to claim power. In order to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Ease with these things may have been given to men as their birthright, but at least I’m lucky that leaders like Hillary, with her closet of many colored pantsuits, have figured out workable solutions for me.
Excerpted from Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, a collection of essays edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger and reprinted with permission from She Writes Press ($13; amazon.com). The above essay is written by Deb Rox, a Florida-based writer, editor, and business strategist who previously served hard time in non-profit management and state government.