Cover That Up

Political fashion's desexualization.

By Kate Holloway

Michelle Obama’s knees are Britney Spears’ vagina. Or at least they unleashed the same media frenzy.

The first lady stepped off Air Force One wearing Bermuda shorts to go hiking with her family, and it was as shocking as a booze-marinated pop star wielding her gaping birth canal to the paparazzi. “She looked fine. But that doesn’t make the ensemble OK,” said Washington Post Fashion Editor Robin Givhan of Obama’s offensive outfit. “It does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.”

It’s not a Republican thing. It’s not a Democratic thing. It’s a politics thing. Women married to politicians are ornaments to be admired — as long as they don’t reveal too much — and female politicians are not women. After all, a woman on the arm of a powerful man must shine brilliantly so as to enhance his stature. Her appearance is worthy of comment, but her thoughts, actions, and beliefs don’t matter. Magazine Web sites host slideshows of her J. Crew and Oscar de la Renta ensembles, but Lady Obama’s professional credentials just don’t seem to cut it.

Laura Bush received more coverage from the television networks after she lost 20 pounds and changed her hair color. US Weekly awarded Hillary Clinton the opportunity to comment on her own fashion blunders after style experts constantly critiqued her fashion faux pas. The media also lauded Nancy Reagan for her ultra-conservative style of dress along with her ridiculously naive “Just Say No” campaign. Jackie Onassis remains a fashion icon and she bared her arms. The tenacity!

But while presidential wives cling to conservative femininity, the working women of Washington have to keep themselves completely genderless. As soon as she decides to take an oath of office, a woman is no longer allowed to dress like a woman. Turn on C-SPAN. Those expensive walking garbage bags shuffling down the ornate aisles aren’t trash, they are the Washington-approved suits of “female” politicians. She can wear some bright colors, distinguishing her from the dark blue, blacks, and browns of the men’s suits, but she’s basically wearing a stiff Snuggie with a fancy broach.

Try finding her collarbone, let alone the slight cleavage that plagued Senator Hillary Clinton during a 2007 speech about higher education in front of a predominantly male Senate. “Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way,” wrote Givhan about Clinton’s mildly exposed rack. “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation.”

Givhan isn’t as misogynistic as she appears; she’s just articulating a reality, albeit an offensive one. Any woman working in politics must hide her sexuality for her own physical and professional protection.

I interned for six months at the New York State Assembly and when I wore a slightly flattering wrap-dress into those chambers, no one cared what committee agenda I passed around. “You look lovely young lady” lost any complimentary value when an elected officials’ prior sexual conduct resulted in strict Assembly policies prohibiting interns from attending events where alcohol is served.

Female politicians don’t actually follow those garment rules for themselves. They follow those rules for men, further reinforcing the idea that men can’t control themselves around women. Political culture isn’t stuck in the 1950s; it’s still the 1890s, and women are either virtuous morality guides or seductive ladies of the night.