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Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando

When Hillary Rodham Clinton stood on the Senate floor last July, dressed in a low V-neck blouse underneath her coral-hued blazer, she did not anticipate that her neckline would trump her speech about the rising costs of college. Clinton’s mild décolletage may have disturbed some, but for fashion editors, her “new look” was long overdue. The last time the New York senator exuded any hint of sexuality was when she wore a burgundy velvet Oscar de la Renta gown on the cover of Vogue in December 1998. Her decision to dress in a bright spectrum of jackets and suits during her presidential run, as opposed to her usual black pantsuits, helped her stand out on the campaign trail but also, in some ways, seemed to represent a new embrace of her femininity.

Clinton was scheduled to manifest that destiny on the cover of the February 2008 issue of Vogue, in time for the Super Tuesday primary contests and New York City Fall 2008 Fashion Week, which fell within days of each other in February. Julia Reed, Vogue political reporter and Newsweek contributing editor, sharpened her pencils while famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who had photographed Clinton in 1998 and 2003, readied her cameras for the historic shoot. But Clinton disappointed them by changing her mind and canceling at the last minute. Reed was left without a subject, Leibovitz without a model and Vogue without a cover.

Liz Smith broke the news in her gossip column in The New York Post last November. “Handlers for the senator decided Vogue would be ‘too elitist’ and Hillary might come off as ‘too glamorous,’” she wrote. A spokesperson for the magazine confirmed, “We were told by Ms. Clinton’s camp that they were concerned if Clinton appeared in Vogue that she would appear too feminine.” Unsurprisingly, Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, was not pleased.

In her February 2008 “Letter from the Editor,” Wintour wrote, “The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our culture come to this? How is it that The Washington Post recoils from the slightest hint of cleavage on a senator? This is America, not Saudi Arabia.” On the page is a photograph of Clinton, taken by Leibovitz, traveling between appointments in New York City. She is dressed in a navy pin-striped Oscar de la Renta pantsuit, sitting inside a car and taking notes as she speaks on the phone. It is the same photo that appeared in the December 2003 issue of Vogue, after the former first lady was elected to the Senate.

Wintour’s letter induced a hysterical reaction among media journalists, who reported that the editrix with the trademark razor-sharp bob was upset with the female presidential candidate. The idea of conflict between the two powerful women stirred a lot of attention in the blogosphere, where Wintour’s words were often misconstrued. In her letter, Wintour blamed the media, not Clinton or her team of advisors. Most likely, it was the thousand-dollar dresses that Wintour promotes in the glossy pages of her magazine that caused Clinton to shy away.

A couple of weeks after the February 2008 issue of Vogue appeared on newsstands with another blonde cover girl, actress Kate Bosworth, and after the frenzy of Super Tuesday and Fall Fashion Week died down, Clinton made an unexpected appearance in Us Weekly, the popular magazine that is known to demean celebrities with unflattering photos that portray them in everyday situations. Instead of sitting before Leibovitz’s flattering soft-focus lens, Clinton decided to err on the side of self-deprecation by joining her critics in “My Worst Outfits Ever!”

How did Us convince Clinton when Wintour had failed? “It was pretty simple,” Us’ editor in chief, Janice Min, told The New York Times. “One of the editors in the office had the idea, we laughed for a second—and then put in a request to Mrs. Clinton’s camp. And they said an immediate yes.” The staff selected about 12 photos for Clinton to comment on. The result was a four-page spread with the senator’s hand-selected worst outfits accompanied by the type of self-criticism she hoped would endear her to female voters. Of a photograph of herself in a blue-and-white belted, striped shirtdress, taken at a campaign event in 1992, Clinton wrote: “Now you know why I stick with pantsuits.”

In Us, Clinton showed that she cares about what she wears without appearing too frivolous or pretentious. “In a campaign where everybody is trying to criticize her as being too robotic, too unemotional or too power-hungry, it was an interesting way to show her warm and funny side,” Min told The New York Times. The story demonstrated that Clinton is fully aware of what her fashion critics have been saying all along. “If we’re talking about politics, everything is about strategy,” said Andi Zeisler, editor in chief of Bitch. “Candidates seem to make decisions based on what will reach more people. What’s more populist than Us Weekly?”

Clinton’s decision to choose Us’ one million newsstand buyers over Vogue’s smaller, more elite readership was as political as her sartorial choices. “Hillary as first lady and someone who is running for office are two different things,” said Leslie M. M. Blume, who covers fashion and politics for The Huffington Post. Appearing in Us humanizes her by highlighting her flaws without taking away from her role as a leader. It also brings Clinton within reach of one of her core groups of supporters; it became apparent as her campaign progressed that she enjoyed much support from lower-income, less-educated women who are more interested in reading about their favorite reality-show personalities than obsessing over Parisian couture. Clinton knows she has to earn their votes and it is more likely these women will pick up a copy of Us than Vogue on their supermarket newsstands.

But for some of Clinton’s supporters, deciding to back out of a Vogue cover was not a good idea. “I thought it was surprising that she turned Vogue down,” said Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization aimed at helping women advance into leadership positions. Wilson’s organization recognizes the media’s influence in changing public perceptions of women in power. “Part of what Clinton has to deal with is actually not her tougher side, but her feminine side,” Wilson said. “When she comes out with something like the cover of Vogue, it’s very helpful for her.”

Women’s fashion magazines, which usually don’t cover politics, try to find ways to do so in a presidential year. For a publishing sector that is often criticized for looking backward and conserving old notions of femininity, this season of politics has given fashion magazine editors like Wintour the opportunity to look toward the future. White believes that women’s magazines can help Americans grow comfortable with the idea of women in power. There is, of course, no better time to do this than during an election year when a woman is running for the highest position of power in the United States.

Marie Claire’s editor in chief, Joanna Coles, “felt a little clairvoyant” when she decided to run a photograph of herself shaking hands with Clinton in the September 2006 issue of her magazine. The caption reads: “Will she be our first woman president?” Clinton was one of the subjects of a 20-page fashion shoot of Capitol Hill movers and shakers. The photograph in the portfolio showed Clinton dressed in another one of her favorite Oscar de la Renta pantsuits, having tea in the Sewall-Belmont House, the only museum in Washington dedicated to the history of women’s suffrage. In the photo, Clinton appears regal and at ease with herself, wearing an outfit of her choosing. It is the last sit-down photo she had taken for a fashion magazine before she formally announced that she was running for president.

“The coverage [of politics in women’s magazines] has gotten stronger and stronger,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t hurt any woman to be a part of this coverage. This is a time for female leaders, and women’s magazines are on top of the trend.” One magazine that has taken the lead is Glamour, which has run a number of stories about Clinton’s White House prospects. “The Most Powerful Woman in Office” (October 2006) displayed various caricatures showing Hillary as the first female president, while “What’s Up with All the Cleavage” (December 2007) used Clinton’s neckline dip as a launching pad for a discussion about the ways women dress in the workplace.

Though Clinton may have refused to accommodate the large number of fashion editors who sought her as their muse this political season, it did not stop many of them from exercising their creativity with fashion spreads inspired by her power-suit chic. In its February 2008 issue, Vogue published a series of ensembles for “Clinton’s consideration.” The New York Times’ style magazine, T, celebrated colorful coats in “Power Play” for its Fall 2007 travel issue. Both stories featured models in conservative suits with shoulder-length hairstyles mimicking Clinton’s signature coif. And in its February 2008 spread “The Politics of Fashion,” Harper’s Bazaar used a life-sized cardboard cutout of Clinton instead of the real thing.

No matter what the outcome in November, this presidential election is significant because it is changing not only the way Americans perceive themselves, but also how the rest of the world perceives America. At this time, it seems unlikely Clinton will be Vogue-ing for cameras anytime soon, although Women’s Wear Daily did report in February that “the Clintons are working on something together for Vogue in the near future."

Hillary Clinton has made it clear that, like men, women in politics are more interested in what is in political fashion than the latest sartorial trend. Fashion magazines are going to have to find ways to adjust to these new realities. They may have to settle for more cardboard cutouts.

 

 



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