Unbuttoned: Hillary Clinton and Theresa May Herald a New Age in Power Dressing

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Unbuttoned

By VANESSA FRIEDMAN

When Hillary Clinton takes the stage at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Thursday to formally accept the nomination as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, she will make history and automatically become a role model for women in a way that goes beyond all of her achievements thus far.

Over the months until the general election (and perhaps beyond), she will be scrutinized in evermore exacting detail, not just for her economic platform and her emails, but also for her body language, her eating habits, her relationships. And, yes, her clothes.

This is life in the contemporary political arena, where who a candidate is as a person — the choices she makes every day — is as picked over as her positions, in part because those are choices we all share.

Most of us don’t have to decide on sanctions against Syria, or whether to try to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, but we all have to get dressed in the morning. That’s the sweet spot where public politician and private person meet.

It’s not an embarrassment, or an affront. It’s reality. And right now it is an enormous opportunity: to redefine what being a female leader means, on every level. There is finally critical mass to seize it.

For years Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, with her palette of Pantone jackets and black pants, has set the tone, tweaking the male uniform by disaggregating tops and bottoms and expanding the color range while keeping within a traditional framework.

Effectively she was buying into the idea that for a woman to wield power in what was historically a man’s world, she had to pretty much dress like a man — but brighter!

After all, the only alternative Western role model was Margaret Thatcher. But post-power, her skirt suits, pussy-bow blouses and hair-sprayed bouffant calcified into caricature.

Now, however, between Mrs. Clinton and Theresa May, Britain’s new prime minister (and to a certain extent, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland), two more women are in the public eye, not as spouses of world leaders, but as the leaders themselves — or the potential leaders. And they are, quietly but unquestionably, changing the rules about what it means to look like a president or prime minister.

Or, as Ivanka Trump said at the Republican convention, “C.E.O. of the country.” Or simply C.E.O.

It doesn’t have to mean looking like a man in female colors.

Ms. May, who took office earlier this month, is the starkest proponent of this. She has been entirely unabashed about her own interest in fashion, especially shoes, from leopard-print kitten heels to lipstick-print ballet flats and patent leather over-the-knee boots, worn to greet the president of Mexico during a trip to Buckingham Palace.

At the Women in the World summit last October, in an interview on stage with Tina Brown, Ms. May said: “I’m a woman, I like clothes. One of the challenges for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is to be ourselves, and to say you can be clever and like clothes.”

She told the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs that if she were cast away, her “luxury item” would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue.

She has refused to admit that caring about fashion is irreconcilable with caring about, say, nuclear policy, and in doing so she is setting a precedent that allows women to use clothes to express a facet of their persona that may otherwise be denied, without it undermining expectations.

Not to mention giving permission for girls and young women to expect that just because they want to wear something that looks less like corporate armor and more like high style, it does not mean they are not highly intelligent and serious people.

Indeed, an oft-repeated story these days involves Ms. May meeting a young woman in the House of Commons who was wearing a trendy pair of shoes. “I said I liked them, and she said my shoes were the reason she became involved in politics,” Ms. May said.

The prime minister has even indicated that fashion may be a political advantage, calling her shoes an “icebreaker.” (This parallels similar stories from the former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who wrote an entire book, “Read My Pins,” about her strategic use of jewelry, which she called “part of my personal diplomatic arsenal” during her time in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.)

Of all of Ms. May’s looks, her shoes have received the most attention. But to me, certain dresses have stood out: a navy Roland Mouret with an asymmetric neckline to speak at the Conservative Party Conference last year; a purple sheath when it was announced that she was one of two women left in the party leadership contest.

They break the traditional divide between, say, first lady and first person (i.e., Michelle Obama and Mrs. Merkel), in which historically first ladies wore dresses, and women in the business of governing wore, well, the pants. And the jackets.

There have been exceptions to this rule, most notably in South America, where women have held more power positions that they have in Europe and the United States. The former Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for example, was known for her lace and floral frocks.

Even so, women like the embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet tend to the Merkel school of dress: a uniform of colorful jackets and straight skirts or trousers.

Indeed, you can see it in the contrast between Ivanka Trump, the female power player of the Trump campaign, and Mrs. Clinton; Mrs. Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both Ms. Trump and Mrs. Obama (much as they may cringe at the comparison) wore neat, round-necked dresses during the recent conventions, Ms. Trump’s, sleeveless and Mrs. Obama’s, cap-sleeved.

Mrs. Obama arguably established this model, abandoning the first-lady-in-skirt-suits model generally adopted by both Laura and Barbara Bush as well as Nancy Reagan, and using a dress to project a less fussy, traditional persona and her right to bare arms.

But Ms. Warren almost always sports a sleek jewel-toned jacket over a round-necked black shirt and black trousers. And Mrs. Clinton has declared allegiance to trouser suits, the ones she settled on when she began her political career after the White House. As first lady, she tended toward the pastel and the classic and the skirt, but when she began her Senate campaign, she wore only black trouser suits.

And though that soon gave way to tone-on-tone colors, they have become the symbol of the before and after stages in her life: from behind-the-scenes power, wife and helpmeet to candidate in her own right.

Even within this more Merkel-like continuum, though, Mrs. Clinton has been branching out, wearing leather (Leather! When was the last time you saw a would-be president in leather that did not involve him standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier?) and beading, from both lesser-known names and designer labels, including Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

“I think America, and the electorate, is finally ready to embrace that, the idea of women politicians wearing something that is fun and feminine, without it being an issue,” said Lyn Paolo, the costume designer for “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” “It’s about time. And I am really proud of her that she is trying new things.”

Admittedly, it is unlikely that on Thursday night Mrs. Clinton will try something too far out there. As Tammy Haddad, a consultant and the former MSNBC political director, said, when it comes to convention dressing, the best practice is to choose your clothes “like your running mate: Do no harm and pick something you are comfortable in.” Also an outfit in which you can easily raise your arms.

And certainly, it’s easier to depart from expectations after you’ve won than it is to rock the boat beforehand. And everyone’s focus should be on Mrs. Clinton’s words, her clothes just a useful tool to support them.

Either way, however, we are edging into a time when it is possible to conceive of an era in which women not only run the world (Sorry, could not end this without the de rigueur nod to Beyoncé), but also don’t have to don mufti to do it.

Imagine that.

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