Unbuttoned: Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Optics of Relatable Style

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Unbuttoned: Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Optics of Relatable Style

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Unbuttoned

By VANESSA FRIEDMAN

Well, that look didn’t last long.

After a very brief 10-day interlude of in-your-face bluster draped in Loro Piana tailoring courtesy of Anthony Scaramucci’s showmanship, which replaced Mike Dubke’s — well, what? Does anyone have any memory of his affect? Me neither. The White House communications team has reverted to a subtler, but no less notable, style.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was promoted to press secretary when Sean Spicer resigned because of Mr. Scaramucci’s appointment (neither Aaron — Spelling or Sorkin — could make this up), is now the de facto public face of the West Wing. Indeed, she has an evermore visible role now that she is out of the shadow of the Me First! Mooch, and on-camera press briefings have been reinstated.

Instead of Mr. Scaramucci’s Breitling Avenger and mirrored women’s Oakleys (if you were designing the accessories of a character described as a “self-made nakedly ambitious and aggressive member of the wannabe 1 percent,” this is what you might choose), there is her no-loose-threads but equally no-logo, Crayola-colored persona.

You could read the optics as the triumph of glossed-up accessibility over unabashed aspiration, but it’s probably more accurate to see the development as yet another example of what it means to dress the part in this administration, and why it matters.

Take the distraction of Mr. Scaramucci out of the picture and Ms. Sanders still presents a very different image from her predecessor, who was ridiculed for his ill-fitting suits, frumpy ties and American flag pin discombobulation. Not that she put it that way exactly. “When speaking for the president you always try to look your best — some days you do better than others,” is what she emailed. With a smiley face.

Of course, there are more important things to talk about than how the White House communications team looks: gay rights, health care, Russia …

But in a West Wing vocally obsessed by image and appearance, the mien is the message. Or something like that. Recall President Trump’s lauding of his generals as straight out of “central casting”; his reported early scolding of Mr. Spicer for his rumpled appearance; the rumor that he had declared that the women on his staff should “dress like women”; the fact that one of the first things he said to Brigitte Macron during his Bastille Day visit was: “You’re in such good shape. She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful.”

This is true especially in a visual age, and for an administration schooled in the crucible of reality television, where what you wear and how you look play a leading role. Especially when Ms. Sanders is only the third woman to ever hold the post of press secretary and, as she often mentions in her briefings, the first mother. Especially when she is charged with representing an administration in which the attitude toward gender has been, let us say, a somewhat contentious and much discussed issue.

Deny it all you want, cry sexism (though the equal opportunity coverage of Mr. Spicer’s sartorial choices would mitigate against that), but as Dana Perino, President George W. Bush’s last press secretary and now a Fox host, once told Elle magazine: “When I got the job as the press secretary, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to wear?’ People really focus on that.” Externally and, apparently, internally.

And not because the wrong choices make you easy to lampoon on “Saturday Night Live.” Mr. Scaramucci admitted as much the Sunday morning after his appointment during an appearance on “State of the Union With Jake Tapper” on CNN, when he said of Ms. Sanders in her new job: “The only thing I ask Sarah — Sarah, if you’re watching, I loved the hair and makeup person we had on Friday, so I’d like to continue to use the hair and makeup person.”

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

This got a lot of people on social media a little upset — how dare he reduce her to her appearance — even after she and her boss of a moment turned the episode into a bit of witty banter. But it was also a telling detail as far as the equity of appearance goes.

So while Ms. Sanders’s new job has not meant a new look, exactly, it has introduced a more TV-ready version of her old one, which has been characterized as “field hockey coach” and “substitute teacher” (by Slate) and “a real-world figure, dressing on a budget” (by The Hollywood Reporter).

“One of the most important roles — not just as press secretary but in any position — is to convey honesty and transparency to the American people, and that’s the image I’m most focused on,” Ms. Sanders noted in her email. “My focus is less on the people in the room and more about the people in America. I try to be relatable and convey the president’s message directly to the people across the country.”

That means hair that has a Breck Girl shine, and skin that does not. (“We often have hair and makeup done before on-camera appearances,” Ms. Sanders wrote. “This is something previous administrations have done as well, and in the age of HD cameras, I’ll take all the help I can get.”)

It means stack-heel beige pumps and a ubiquitous single strand of pearls. It means that, thus far, the cardigans and printed dresses that had become a signifier for her doppelgänger on “S.N.L.” have disappeared, replaced by a series of almost identical knee-length, round-neck dresses in colors like red, green, black and fuchsia. It meant, during her Tuesday briefing, prom-queen-like shoulder ruffles. It has not meant, thus far, suits or jackets.

That may not seem like a big thing, but abandoning the jacket, even in 2017, is a striking choice on a professional podium, one that aligns Ms. Sanders more with the sartorial camp of Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway than with her predecessors: Dee Dee Myers, a press secretary during the Clinton administration who was known for her miniskirts and bright jackets, and Ms. Perino, who tended toward Chanel-esque suiting (or even the fictional press secretary C. J. Cregg on “The West Wing,” whom the costume designer Lyn Paolo dressed in Calvin Klein and Armani suits).

The net effect is femininity that hasn’t been stiletto-weaponized or armored up as much as turned into an access point: No matter her words, they are framed by a style steeped in cheerful Hallmark history. That is bound to inform how they are received. If much of the administration still channels Wall Street (the Oliver Stone version), Ms. Sanders offers visual reference points of Main Street (the Fox version).

A casting director would approve.

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