ASK SARAH Palin after everyone learned her handlers spent $150,000 on clothes. Ask Cindy McCain after the media slammed her for wearing an outfit that totaled $300,000. Ask Hillary Clinton when the media needled her for restlessly changing her hair style again and again. Ask Michelle Obama after Robin Givhan gushed that when Obama “bounded onto the stage in her sleeveless dresses, with her muscular post-Title IX arms in full view, the definition of a strong woman changed.”
It matters what a woman in politics wears. Every sartorial choice has significance—painting a political woman as shallow or thoughtless or mannish or callous or strong or rebellious or docile. But while women in politics should know all of this, the choices they make are often either thoughtless (wearing a $300,000 outfit while your husband tries to brand his opponent as an elitist) or carefully constrained by the rigid roles the country expects them to play.
The messages are either clumsy and wrong or so subtle that people find in them what they will. For instance, one journalist saw a picture of Obama delicately plying a shovel while wearing a long belted sweater and stylish boots, Rosin said, “I’m beginning to think Michelle rebels against the strictures of first lady life silently, through her outfits, the sartorial equivalents of a middle finger.” A fashion analyst wondered if Obama wore her famous purple sheath dress at the convention because purple is a mix of red and blue. But who knows?
However, a display at the Museum of Art and Design shows a leader who walks a bold but dainty path in female political fashion. These fashion choices are bold. The messages they send are clear, but they’re also whimsical and utterly feminine.
Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State and famous for using her collection of costume jewelry pins to send gentle diplomatic prods. The display shows over 200 of her signature pins. Some of them are delicate but most of them are ponderous—the kind of pins you would need a very serious, sober suit to sustain—and so big that they tore holes in Albright’s serious suits, which she then covered with larger pins.
She began using pins to send messages after the state-run Iraqi press called her a serpent in a cunningly titled poem, “To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings.” It went something like this: “Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night.” The writer went on to weave in a menagerie of animal imagery, penning, “Albright, no one can block the road to Jerusalem with a frigate, a ghost, or an elephant” and calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” The next time she went to Iraq she wore a jeweled serpent entwined around a stick, with a diamond hanging down for its tongue. When the media asked her why, she said it was because the Iraqis thought she was a snake.
She wore wasps when she wanted to send a message with a bit of a sting. She wore a jeweled bug, made of amethyst, chalcedony and gold, to Russia after a Russian official bugged the State Department. She used turtles to complain about the slow progress of peace. She wore balloons to symbolize satisfaction when talks were going well.
When she met with Vladimir Putin and wanted to send a message about Russia ignoring human rights violations in Chechnya, she wore three chubby, Buddha-like monkeys miming “hear no evil,” “see no evil,” “speak no evil.” When she met to navigate talks about nuclear arms, she wore an abstract representation of an arrow, made of anodized aluminum. A diplomat looked down at her pin and said, “Is this one of your interceptor missiles?” She told him, “Yes, and as you can see, we know how to make them very small. So you’d better be ready to negotiate.”
She seems to wear them with a knowledge too many women in politics forget—the knowledge that’s she’s a woman and not a man, and that any disadvantages to being a woman are best deflected with a sly sense of humor instead of acting like a man. A foreign minister mistakenly told reporters that he enjoyed hugging Albright because of her “firm breasts.” Of course outrage followed, which Albright deflected when reporters asked what she thought and she quipped, “Well, I’ve got to have somewhere to put those pins.” Then, of course, she bought a red fox pin—for when she was feeling flirty—to commemorate the occasion.
She told Newsweek, “I love being a woman and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men’s clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am.” It’s an intentional, dignified use of femininity to send a political message that’s bold and clear. It’s fashion that bends the rigidity of female roles, while at the same time not sacrificing the femininity it’s absolutely just that female leaders keep.
This article also appeared on The Curator, an online culture magazine published in New York by the International Arts Movement.
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