The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton is owning the joke about her fashion choices — and it’s working

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking to supporters Saturday on Roosevelt Island in New York, in a speech promoted as her formal presidential campaign debut. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Hillary Clinton, candidate for president, has been making jokes about fashion. They have not exactly been rib-cracking laugh lines, but they have been knowing, droll, even a bit silly. But mostly, they have not been defensive.

Instead, Clinton has gone on the offensive by finding humor in her fashion foibles and beauty regimen. Sometimes she takes up the shtick of her critics and makes it her own. Or she recognizes the joke and tells it before others have the chance. She long ago found a timeless aesthetic that works for her: pantsuit (preferably with matching blouse), blond bob, statement necklace, sensible heels. Now she has taken full ownership of it.

The fashion monster has — for the moment — been wrestled into submission. Clinton stands victorious.

She put the stake in her tormentor on Roosevelt Island as she delivered her first big campaign speech. There she stood, in her new royal blue silk suit, making cracks about dyeing her hair.

“All our Presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer,” Clinton said. “Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well. And one additional advantage: You won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!

[How Hillary Clinton launched her campaign’s latest phase]

The image of her against a backdrop of cerulean blue sky and flag-waving throngs combined with the cheeky comment about her hair to make a statement about comfort, familiarity and confidence — at least in the realm of public presentation. Here was Clinton laughing about her hair in a manner that was not the usual wry and grumpy remark about the pressures on women to be young, thin and Barbie-doll attractive. (“Your hair will send significant messages to those around you,” she said, mockingly during a Class Day speech at Yale in 2001. “What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”)

Saturday’s was a different kind of comment. It acknowledged a bit of vanity, indulgence and stagecraft. It was an Everywoman comment — self-conscious to be sure, but not fraught with feminist theory.

The light-hearted observation took direct aim at a topic raised by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh during the 2008 campaign: “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis? And that woman, by the way, is not going to want to look like she’s getting older, because it will impact poll numbers. It will impact perceptions. In politics, perceptions are reality.”

Clinton’s joke addressed that question before it could become an issue, again. Because surely it would.

And yes, blond hair is high-maintenance, in case you were wondering or perhaps had forgotten. But you don’t want to witness the alternative, do you?

Clinton’s suit was designed by Ralph Lauren, who is known for his celebration and elevation of Americana. The label that has been worn by those who summer in exclusive New England enclaves, as well as those who spent their July and August only dreaming about such luxuries. Lauren, a self-made man, donated $13 million in 1998 to preserve the original Star-Spangled Banner hung at Fort McHenry in 1814. In 2014, he received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his patriotism and philanthropy during a ceremony at the National Museum of American History. Could there be a better example of bootstrapping, entrepreneurial all-American success? Clinton was there for the occasion — wearing an eerily similar suit also designed by Lauren in cobalt blue silk.

[Ralph Lauren, designer of the American Dream, honored by the Smithsonian]

According to the folks at Ralph Lauren, the Roosevelt Island ensemble was new. But really, who could tell other than Clinton herself? For a campaign that’s putting its senior staff on the Vamoose bus, Clinton could have made a sly nod to frugality. On her biggest campaign event so far, she could have shopped her closet. Instead, she had her own private little fashion moment.

[How cheap is Hillary Clinton’s campaign? This cheap.]

Clinton has done more than reach détente with fashion. Fashion is now working for her — as a pleasure, an aesthetic proposition, as well as a campaign symbol. After years of dabbling in Donna Karan and St. John Collection, contact lenses and headbands, skirts and millinery, she finally said “enough.” In 2012, while secretary of state, she faced the public in an official capacity without makeup and wearing her once-maligned eyeglasses. Observers commented and debated the professionalism of her appearance. She did not look bad, although she certainly appeared tired. She eschewed the standard accouterments of the female professional class. When asked about her natural look, she laughed and noted she’d reached a stage in life when she felt empowered to dress as she pleased. Not to flout civility and good manners, but to make choices that more honestly represented her. Indeed, admitting that she had made a considered decision about her appearance — and decided to ignore all the unwritten rules — was a kind of victory for personal style in the political realm.

Clinton is now using her much-discussed and undiminished love of a brightly colored pantsuit as a fundraising device. From her Senate campaign to her first presidential race, she has made cracks about her affection for the practical ensemble. In speeches, she referred to “my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.” In multiple appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” they were reliable fodder for a chuckle. And in informal settings, offhand comments about them served as icebreakers.

The cracks about her pantsuits framed her as a no-frills, serious-minded politician with a uniform — albeit one that came in every color of the rainbow. It often seemed as though she delighted in these jokes because they set her outside the realm of fashion. They gave her a pass when it came to considerations of her style.

In her second presidential campaign, she’s still wearing the pantsuits and she’s still making jokes, but this time the jokes are aimed to cash in. Supporters can purchase a red “everyday pantsuit tee,” with its tromp l’oeil print of a blazer, for $30.

To deflect the barbs about her style, Clinton used comedy as a defense. But through the jokes and the one-liners, she built her own fashion vocabulary. She found a way of talking about her personal aesthetics. And she’s pointedly redefining them on the public stage.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton joked with female voters in South Carolina about her hair color saying they don't have to worry about her going gray if elected president. (Video: Reuters)