CreditIllustration by The New York Times; photograph by Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Last month, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, first met with President Trump about funding for a border wall, I wrote an article about the burnt orange MaxMara coat Ms. Pelosi wore when she exited the White House, which had set social media aflame.
The story reached a huge audience, but not everyone was happy. One irritated reader tweeted, “Would a man’s suit get this much ink?”
Another reader, Suzanne Mintz of Kensington, Md., wrote in a letter to the editor: “Shame on you for feeling the need to remind us that although Ms. Pelosi is a highly accomplished politician and fearless leader, what she is wearing is equally important. You owe her and all women an apology.”
The issue came up again recently, when the new Congress was sworn in, and Ms. Pelosi officially became speaker of the House.
The Times wrote about Ms. Pelosi’s history-making ascendancy and in the course of doing so mentioned the color of her dress (hot pink). The detail also made it into a tweet from a Times account. Readers once more took issue.
“I look forward to your headline about Trump having worn a navy suit and red tie at his next press conference, and about McConnell wearing a black suit and blue tie when announcing that he won’t let the Dems’ bill be voted on in the Senate,” read one tweet.
I understand where these readers are coming from. There is no question fashion has been used as a tool to dismiss women in the past. But there are reasons my colleagues and I consider what a politician — male or female — wears, well, worthy of consideration.
For starters, dress is, without question, an important part of a politician’s tool kit. (It is part of everyone’s tool kit, but for the sake of this discussion let’s just focus on politicians.)
In an increasingly visual age, how you look is part of the message you are communicating. That photo of Ms. Pelosi in an orange coat and dark glasses is more effective than any logo at communicating women’s relish at being on the front lines. (The director Barry Jenkins even put it on a sweatshirt, which he is selling.)
I don’t think there’s any question Ms. Pelosi picked a hot pink dress for her swearing-in both because she knew it would make her stand out in what was still a room full of dark suits, and because of the symbolic nature of the occasion: a color traditionally associated with delicate femininity had become a color associated with a seat of power. That’s a strategic and savvy choice, and to take notice of it is to acknowledge the multidimensional chess game Ms. Pelosi is playing, not to demean her.
We make instant judgments about each other based on image all the time. It’s human instinct, and part of how we decide if someone is “likable” or “believable” or a “leader,” and it’s part of the way our leaders try to influence our feelings about them.
This is true for both men and women. A good friend of mine, a man who is a political crisis consultant (like Olivia Pope on “Scandal”), once told me I would not believe the amount of time he has devoted to discussing tie colors with clients (at their request) when they could have been talking about, say, a peace process.
To ignore how public figures use what they wear is to ignore one of the ways our own understanding is being manipulated. I consider it part of my job as The Times’s chief fashion critic to help readers understand how fashion is being used to communicate, in the same way Andrew Ross Sorkin helps us understand economic policy.
Admittedly, if this context is missing, that’s our mistake; if we are going to use clothes as a signpost of related substance, that connection should be clear. (That is why we deleted our tweet that referred to Ms. Pelosi’s dress: The context was missing.)
To include fashion analysis as a part of a political article would be sexist only if we ignored the policy proposals of female politicians and wrote solely about their clothes, or never wrote about the clothes of male politicians. Neither is the case with our coverage.
That being said, in my experience our readers pay much less attention when we write about men and dress. When I wrote about Tim Kaine and his dad look, for example, during the 2016 campaign, it elicited a pretty low response. I have long written about tie color, especially during debates, as well as about the Casual Friday-ization of the White House under President Barack Obama.
Granted, there is more opportunity to write about female clothing than male clothing, because there is more variety, but that is part of what makes it interesting. And in many ways, their broader fashion options are a boon for women, not a problem.
After years of complaining about people focusing on her clothes, for example, Hillary Clinton turned the attention on her wardrobe into an enormous asset by making it a running joke. (Remember her very first “hard choices” Instagram post about her suits?) This defanged its pejorative power, humanized her and gave supporters a uniform to wear as a badge of solidarity. Can you imagine a man trying to make #PantsuitNation a thing? No one would even know they were looking at anything special.
The more we recognize the role clothes play in life and politics, the more we are all willing to talk about it, the more we normalize it, the less potential it has as a weapon in any situation.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, and would welcome comments; I’ll try to respond to a selection.