Suitability? It’s no longer about what female candidates are wearing

Few, if any, of the comments after the Sept. 12 Democratic debate were about the clothes worn by (from left) Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris.
Eric Gay/Associated Press
Few, if any, of the comments after the Sept. 12 Democratic debate were about the clothes worn by (from left) Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris.

Quick, what was Amy Klobuchar wearing at the Sept. 12 Democratic primary debate? How about Kamala Harris? What did she have on? Elizabeth Warren? Probably one of her jewel-tone jackets, but which color?

In Boston on a recent morning, even the stylish couldn’t recall.

“I don’t remember,” said Alexis Eliopoulos, an executive vice president at Kel & Partners, as she strolled Newbury Street.


“I don’t know,” said Erin Massey, a nanny pushing a stroller.

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“No idea,” said Lynette Francis, a college administrator.

What? We’re not obsessed with every strand of hair and jacket choice — and pantsuit — worn by a female candidate? What’s going on?

Brace yourself. “It’s what they’re saying that matters,” Massey said.

It’s way too soon to declare victory in the gender-parity category. But the almost-complete absence of fashion-focused conversation about the leading three female candidates is heartening women’s advocates, from the president of NOW, to legendary editor Tina Brown, to the costume designer for the HBO show “Veep.”


“Maybe we’ve turned the corner,” said Kathleen Felix-Hager, the creative force behind the bright, form-fitting outfits worn by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s attention-hungry Selina Meyer, a power-seeking pol on the HBO series.

It’s not that there is no clothes talk this election cycle. But as Kelley Tuthill, a former WCVB reporter who is now a vice president at Regis College, noted, the men are the ones grabbing headlines.

The Wall Street Journal: “Why Does Pete Buttigieg Never Wear a Blazer?”

The New Yorker: “Democratic Debate 2019: Andrew Yang’s Bold Lack of a Tie.”

Newsitics: “Cory Booker with hair when he was young will make you smile.”


In fact, the one viral story about a female candidate and clothing — Harris and a sequined jacket — is notable mainly for the rapidity of the backlash against those who criticized her for engaging in the presumably female activity of shopping.

To refresh your memory: Campaigning in Columbia, S.C., in February, Harris stopped in a clothing store. A reporter pointed out a particularly loud jacket, Harris tried it on, preened in the mirror, bought it — and then the attacks started.

“On the campaign trail, Kamala Harris tries on a sequined jacket, and men go nuts,” read the headline on an LA Times column that pushed back against some snarky comments. “It was too much for Very Serious Journalist Brit Hume,” the piece read.

Pete Buttigieg has faced scrutiny over his fashion choices.
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/File
Pete Buttigieg has faced scrutiny over his fashion choices.

Before we get too giddy, it’s important to remember that research shows women are still held to higher appearance standards than men, said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Likability and confidence — which are tied to physical appearance — remain “non-negotiable” for women, she said.

Imagine if a woman wore an ill-fitting jacket, she said. “People tend to talk about Bernie Sanders’ rumpled look as endearing. A woman would not get that same courtesy.”

A 2013 study of the effect of media coverage of women candidates’ appearance concluded that even neutral or positive references to a woman’s appearance had detrimental effects on her candidacy.

Voters who hear about a female candidate’s looks are “less likely to think she is experienced, strong, effective, qualified, and confident,” according to the research by the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run.

But sartorially, at least for now, we’ve evolved from 2016, when Hillary Clinton had to “wedge herself into this very small slice of a Venn diagram — with ‘woman’ on one side and ‘leader’ on the other,” said Megan Collins, author of the Style Girlfriend blog.

“Hillary’s decision was pantsuits, but make them bright,” Collins said. “She was dressed like a man if he was a kindergarten teacher.”

But in 2019, the top three female contenders seem to have achieved the equivalent of the male suit — their outfits blend into the background.

So how did we get here?

Let’s start with one very significant change since 2016: There are more women running for president.

Brown, the former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor and founder of Women in the World , a journalism platform, recalled what Hillary Clinton told her: “One of the things she said to me is that it’s all going to change when you get more than one woman on that stage. I had to represent womanhood from every point of view.”

The #MeToo movement is also likely playing a role, by prompting many people — journalists included — to be more cautious about how they talk about women, said sociologist Ashley Mears, an associate professor at Boston University.

“That is a really profound cultural shift,” she said.

But even as women’s advocates see progress in the absence of clothing-focused coverage, Virginia Sapiro, a Boston University professor who specializes in political behavior and gender politics, said that talking about the fact that we’re not talking about it shows we’re not past the problem.

As she said in an e-mail to the Globe: “Are you sure you want to celebrate people not paying attention to what the women are wearing by writing about how people aren’t paying attention to what they are wearing, which will spark people to talk about whether people are talking about what they’re wearing — and what they’re wearing that people might talk about?”

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.