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Hillary Clinton's wardrobe, Paul Ryan's suits: Do clothes matter?

August 15, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a press conference in Istanbul.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a press conference in Istanbul. (Saygin Serdaroglu / AFP…)

Which designers does Hillary Rodham Clinton wear?

An interviewer in Kyrgyzstan got the equivalent of the hand when he asked the secretary of State that question during a panel discussion in December 2010. Clinton's response: "Would you ever ask a man that question?"

Her comment went viral Tuesday -- way after the fact -- when Boston Review posted that snippet from the interview on its Tumblr page.

What's especially cringeworthy about this exchange is that just moments before, Clinton had addressed a young lawyer's question about how women could succeed in today's world. "[I]t requires, for a woman, usually in today's world still, an extra amount of effort because I think it's -- the fact that women are still sometimes judged more critically," Clinton answered. "If you are in the courtroom or you are presenting a case, it still is a fact -- and this is not just in Kyrgyzstan, this is everywhere -- that when a man walks into a courtroom, it's rare for someone to say, 'Oh, look what he is wearing.' But if you walk into a courtroom, or any young woman walks into a courtroom, people are going to notice. And that will be an additional requirement that you have to meet."

Why the moderator would ask Clinton about her designer preferences -- though he did preface his question by saying it was silly -- after she'd just expressed frustration over the amount of attention paid to what women wear is a little puzzling. But is it so offensive?

Clinton is a dynamic, powerful and smart leader worthy of our respect (and a million more memes). That does not mean that after a long interview, the moderator is totally in the wrong to wrap things up by asking some lighthearted questions about Clinton's favorite movies, Chelsea's first words, where she likes to vacation and, yes, what she wears. And it's not as though she's completely thoughtless when it comes to her looks, as an April 2012 article in Elle pointed out. "She's a bottle blond! Do you know how much work that is?" wrote Rachael Combe as an aside.

True, I've written that I didn't think it was fair to criticize gymnast Gabby Douglas' hair or to say that actress Jennifer Lawrence didn’t look hungry enough for the starring role in "The Hunger Games." But that doesn't mean I think image is irrelevant.

We would be lying if we said clothes were meaningless. Our appearance conveys a message; it helps put people in context. It's what Northwestern University researchers recently dubbed "enclothed cognition."

"Clothes cognition is really about becoming the clothes themselves and having them direct who you are and how you act in the world,” study author Adam Galinsky told ABC News' Serena Marshall and Lana Zak.  "When we are putting on a suit, we are not only giving impressions to other people but we are also giving an impression to ourselves." He continued: "If you put on a black T-shirt, you become more aggressive. You put on a nurse’s uniform, you become more helpful."

Given that logic, it’s not entirely out of bounds or vapid to ask Clinton what designers she prefers. Her clothing selection could possibly help empower other women who want to follow in her footsteps.  

And, though we may not give as much thought about what a man wears, it's not totally off our radar either. Just ask Rep. Paul Ryan, whose baggy suits not only make him look like a little kid drowning in his dad’s clothes but have also been the topic of recent national conversation.

ALSO:

Candidate Paul Ryan: Is he a bad Catholic?

Circumcision: It was good enough for Jesus

How Julia Child taught me to cook -- and live

Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.


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