By Nichola D. Gutgold
In October former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright unveiled her collection of fashion pins in the Tiffany and Company Gallery of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The pins, she said, helped her to communicate messages to those whom she met as secretary of state. Perhaps most famously, when meeting with then president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Secretary Albright wore a snake pin to subtly counter an Iraqi poem that described her as a serpent. She has continued to wear the pins—mostly costume pieces—and notes that they are a fun way to signal a mood for an event. Since what a public woman looks like—most often her hairdos and hemlines—is written about, unfortunately to the negligence of other more important information about her, it seems particularly wise and strategic that if you can’t beat the media you should join them by embedding a message in your style. Hearing about the display of Madeleine Albright’s pins, and her forthcoming book, Read My Pins, I started to think about other public women who have communicated—perhaps quite intentionally—important messages with their style.
The late Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator from Maine always wore a fresh rose. When I visited The Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum in Skowhegan, Maine, a worthwhile trip for anyone interested in women’s history, I saw the specially designed miniscule water holder that was rigged up to keep the flower fresh. A timelessly tailored, usually dark colored business suit or dress allowed her to blend into the male bastion of politics, but her touch of the trademark fresh rose, Senator Smith said “allowed me to remain ladylike” noted Angie Stockwell, Senator Smith’s longtime personal secretary and now the collection specialist. At the well appointed museum and extensive library, Ms. Stockwell also serves as a library tour guide, staff photographer, newsletter coordinator, and librarian.
As a senator, presidential candidate and now as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton consistently wears pantsuits. She wore skirted suits as a first lady, but perhaps as a sign of her relatively new found freedom to speak on her own behalf, not her husband’s administration, she now wears pantsuits. The emergence of the pantsuit into mainstream fashion for women in the 1970s coincided with the upswing of the women’s liberation movement. Is Hillary Clinton telling us that she has finally been liberated? Hillary Clinton even speaks about her pantsuits. After she won a New York senate seat, she recounted, in her victory speech, “Sixty-two counties, sixteen months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later, because of you, we are here!” And again in her Democratic National Convention speech in 2008, resplendent in a bright orange pantsuit she assuaged the raw nerves of her fervent supporters who were none too happy to see her lose the nomination to Barack Obama. She urged them to "unite as a single party with a single purpose." She appealed to the "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits" –a nod to the young adult book series, and movie Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to embrace Barack Obama as their candidate.
First Lady Michelle Obama, unapologetically continues to bare her impressively toned arms, most recently on the cover of October’s Prevention magazine, perhaps in an effort to remind women to be strong, to take care of themselves and to also signal that she isn’t likely to cover up just because some opinion columnists and pundits say she should. In Prevention magazine, Mrs. Obama describes her exercise and fitness routine and encourages women to continue to take care of themselves as they age. Also a style signal from our first lady, this one reminiscent of then vice presidential candidate Richard’s Nixon’s description of his wife, Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” first Lady Obama frequently dresses in affordable J. Crew clothing, communicating, perhaps that in lean economic times, we all need to find places to save money. Like many first ladies before her, the fashion preferences of Mrs. Obama are being closely watched. CNN reports that there is a blog that tracks the first lady’s daily fashion choices.
The personal style of our public women has always been a fascination to the press and the public and some astute public women seem to be putting their messages where they’ll get the most attention. They are wearing them.
Nichola D. Gutgold is is Asssociate Professor Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley Campus and author of the following books: Paving the Way for Madam President, Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News, and Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘Won’ in 2008.