Make no mistake about it -- we are in the midst of a fashion revolution in Washington.
Whereas femininity and style traditionally have been distinct from power and politics, the recent slate of political elite have embraced style as a way to court voters. Not discounting Dolley Madison's ostrich feather turbans, most fashionistas point to Jackie Kennedy Onassis as the mother of style in modern politics. Jackie O was the American face of fashion for decades. Her grace and style set an example for women worldwide and provided an aspiration for a generation of women. Let's not even talk about the fact that I'm sure the oversized sunglasses we have all been paying an arm and a leg for are essentially knock offs of Jackie O's. But, and this is a big but here, Jackie O was not in a position of political power. America accepted her fashion sense but in a slightly condescending way, like Mad Men's Don Draper accepted his wife's fashion as a frivolity. Jackie was our cultured and pearled porcelain doll instead of our political policy leader.
At that time, we were willing to accept style, but only from a first lady -- not a female presidential candidate -- which would have been unheard of -- or a woman Senator or Congresswoman. Think Claire Booth Luce in a manly fitted suit.
Hillary Rodham Clinton had no problem sporting fashionable dresses and (gasp) even a headband when she was first lady. (Despite valiant efforts, Hillary has been unable to destroy all evidence of this.)
But as soon as First Lady Clinton became Senator Clinton, she ditched the headbands for multiple pantsuits and never looked back. Today we can laugh with the Secretary of State at the recent photo of her and German Chancellor Angela Merkel comparing matching pants suits. She's got her look down, and the world accepts it. Hillary can make Foreign Policy and not bother to consider her fashion ratings.
As an image and fashion consultant, I have noticed that the recent political elite have embraced fashion as a way to connect to voters. Let's first take a look at everyone's favorite, Momma Grizzly. Sarah Palin uses fashion to create her image and get her message across. However, which message should we listen to? She wears suits, yes. But these are not your mother's JC Penny Specials. When she first came on the scene as the Vice Presidential candidate, Palin infamously favored upscale stores likes Saks and Neiman Marcus. Yet this year she has embarked on a U.S. Bus Tour where she can be seen in tee shirts, khaki pants, and state logo hoodies. She even uses her apparel to highlight her ecumenical appeal, alternately wearing both the Star of David and a Crucifix around her neck. I am left thinking: Who is Sarah Palin, what is her message, and now what is her faith? I am confused.
Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, who is as pretty as her pearls, looks more feminine than presidential. Could the subliminal message to the Tea Party be "I am a Girly Leader"?
It is challenging to sync a political message with a visual message through dress. One woman who manages to simultaneously craft her message and look is Nancy Pelosi. In the early years, Congresswomen Pelosi held back stylistically. Then, as she ascended to Speaker of the House she let her fashion wings spread along with her voice. She is typically seen in Armani Suits and Elizabeth Arden quaffed hair. She is consistent and traditionally chic. Her crisply executed appearance remains feminine yet does not interfere with her "One of the Boys" message. Much like First Lady Michele Obama (who has singlehandedly brought both the sleeveless shift and jeweled pins to the forefront of fashion), Pelosi manages to bring a touch of glamour into the political arena.
Is fashion important in politics? An audience always looks before they listen.
As a fashion consultant, I am thrilled that once again fashion has become an important statement on the Capital Hill runway. Clothes may not make the man (or woman), but they can create the image that the candidate wants us to see.
Tracy Clifford is a Chicago based Fashion/Style Consultant who attends all the International and American Designer Shows and styles
Looks and Wardrobes for Businesswoman, Entertainers, Political Leaders and Public Speakers. She delivers her messages on TV and in print.