From Pantsuits to Purple: The Symbolic Power of Fashion

Image matters. We know this. And while we know we must maintain it, we often underestimate our power to strategically use it. 

In my research on professional, male-dominated work environments, women and minorities operate on a shorter aesthetic leash. They can get away with far less than their white male counterparts when it comes to visual self-expression. They already look different, which means they are constantly under scrutiny. Every look is measured and analyzed. Every choice is subject to criticism.

And perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than with female politicians. From their facial expressions to their hemlines, female politicians are too often embraced or rejected on appearance rather than substance. It’s tough out there for our female elected officials, on both sides of the aisle. 

So as this political cycle comes to a close, it’s an appropriate moment to think about the role of appearance and image, particularly with regard to its symbolic potency. Hillary Clinton is, quite possibly, the most visually scrutinized woman of power in our modern era. Putting her policies and partisan politics aside, her strategic use of her image is a reminder to all of us of the power of self-fashioning, far beyond merely looking “good” or “pretty.” 

It all started with the pantsuits, of course. As a nation, women didn’t even start wearing pants until around one hundred years ago. They reached greater social prominence in the 1970s, and eventually made their way into the workplace, largely replacing the standard uniform of the skirt or dress. 

Hillary Clinton, fittingly, was the first woman ever to wear pants in her First Lady portrait, and it wasn’t until 1993 (you read that correctly) that women were permitted to wear pants on the Senate floor. And lest you think we’ve now fully modernized, some more traditional judges still don’t permit women lawyers to wear pants in their courtroom. 

So by the time this election season came into full-swing, so, too, did Clinton’s “Pantsuit Nation,” for whom the embrace of pants is not only a nod to physical comfort, but also a subversive rejection of the old hegemony. (Part of a long lineage that includes Joan of Arc and her scandalous embrace of “male” clothing.)

But the symbolic significance of public appearance and its role as an act of rebellion doesn’t end with trousers. 

Throughout this journey, Clinton also embraced the colors of the suffragette movement. First, white for her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and now purple in her concession speech. Purple traditionally signifies dignity and loyalty, but some speculate that her use of it last week also symbolizes the coming together of the divided red and blue electorate. 

To gaze at women in politics is not merely to rate their appearance (though certainly many do that, as well), but also to witness sartorial semiotics in action: The physical manifestation of centuries of history, gender norms, and power struggles. 

In an age when we strive for airbrushed perfection and endlessly self-scrutinize, let us celebrate our ability to reclaim appearance and use it as both a self-actualizing and unifying device. Because while voters don’t always get the outcome they fight for, this is a victory onto itself.



p.s. How have you or other women in your life used your image to make a statement? Tell me in the comments section. 

p.p.s. Do you know other women in positions of power who deal with constant public scrutiny around their appearance? Share this with them to help them reframe the way they approach their image. 

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