Wearing the Pants
Envisioning a Female Commander-in-Chief

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, December 9, 2007

The mind, so easily distracted by things mauve and lemon yellow, strays from more pressing concerns to ponder the sartorial: How many pantsuits does Hillary Clinton have in her closet? And does she ever wear them in the same combination more than once?

The pantsuit is Clinton's uniform. Hers is a mix-and-match world, a grown-up land of Garanimals: black pants with gray jacket, tan jacket with black pants, tan jacket with tan pants. There are a host of reasons to explain Clinton's attachment to pantsuits. They are comfortable. They can be flattering, although not when the jacket hem aligns with the widest part of the hips (hypothetically speaking, of course). Does she even have hips?

And because Clinton seems to prefer crossing her legs at the ankle -- in the way girls were taught when girls were still sent to finishing school -- there is less likelihood of any embarrassing straight-to-YouTube video.

Women have come a long way from the time when wearing a pair of pants was considered "borrowing from the boys." So it would be highly regressive to suggest that the candidate is using trousers to heighten the perception that she can be as tough as a man. And yet . . .

This is a campaign in which gender stereotypes are being challenged even as the old assumptions are proving stubborn and resilient. Voters are being asked to envision something this country has never had: a female commander in chief. And the culture is gently roiling as audiences try to color in the outline of an XX president.

Is even considering the senator's clothes a kind of chauvinistic assault? Or is it merely the intellect trying to wrangle some sort of order out of the imagination? Oh, the tumult!

With the male candidates, the nuances of their attire matters: the fit of the suit collar, the color of the tie. But with Clinton, one must first get past distractions such as that pink blazer -- the one John Edwards didn't like so much -- before the details can be considered.

What would possess a woman to wear a jacket the color of a geranium in full bloom and then imply she doesn't want anyone to notice or comment on her clothes? Yes, a woman can still be taken seriously, viewed as tough and celebrated for her ideas even if she is wearing a sunshine yellow suit. But someone, somewhere, is also going to notice that she is dressed like a solar flare. Clinton is too smart not to know that.

Those are the color choices of someone who not only wants to stand out, but is happy to do so in a palette that is quintessentially feminine. Those are not the typical color choices of East Coast chardonnay swillers, for whom black is a symbol of sophistication and ┬┐lan. Bold colors are more common in the vast midsection and southern parts of the country. Clinton-the-human-color-wheel is wooing Ohio and Florida.

She also has made a clear visual distinction between herself as first lady and as presidential candidate. As first lady, she played to tradition, dutifully wearing skirts of an unflattering length and jackets shaped like a rectangle. But now it is not so far-fetched to believe that her wardrobe is a way of reminding voters that a woman can have as much peacock bravado as the boys.

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