Women, Power
& Fashion:
Choose Two

By: Deborah Ma

“We are all, to varying degrees, public people now.” For better or worse, you’ll have to admit with Vanessa Friedman whose article, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Power of Style, published in the New York Times, explains how in a world increasingly run with social sharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest, “judgments [are] made, long before position papers are read.” And in this world where we’ve become accustomed to the public broadcasts of everyday details shared through photos and 140-character first-impressions, an undeniably strengthening social credo underlies these new ways we communicate, and it insists that appearance matters.

In the article, Friedman proposes that readers and the public alike should not be so quick to dismiss media outlets for their at times obsessive reportage over the wardrobe choices of influential women not in the entertainment industry. “This ‘ain’t it ridiculous we care about what power women wear, not what they do’ attitude,” as Friedman refers, aims to highlight the sexist bias our media holds against women with its never-ending infatuated desire to report on a woman’s looks, rather than say, the influential decisions she makes or her intellect attributed for her success. In the case of women like former Secretary Hillary Clinton, who hold the potential to affect change throughout the country, if not the world, should anyone really be writing about her hair?

Yet, Friedman challenges her readers to consider what better role models we have than women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Julia Gillard and Kristen Gillibrand. And if we are to learn from them through their professional triumphs and journeys, why should we not extend these lessons to their appearance as well. “Where better to look for examples,” says Friedman, “than women who have presumably had to think through how their image affects perception and relationships…who have had almost every wardrobe choice recorded; who lead busy lives and need clothes that are functional and comfortable?”

The conversation about fashion and women in power volleys back and forth between the obsessed who pour over each and every wardrobe detail and the scoffers who read remarks about a woman’s dress to be absurd if not ridiculous. The vacillating debate on women’s fashion highlights the uneasy vantage point we hold in understanding what impact if any, appearance should play in the lives of women. When women have struggled and continue to struggle under impossible standards of beauty with judgments of their worth tied to the measure of their looks – how can we have conversations about appearance that are useful and safe?

To scoff alongside those who read references to a woman’s dress as lacking in seriousness or maturity, contracts the potential conversation we can have about women, power, and appearance. To expand the discussion that can lead to a realistic appreciation for the role of appearance and to move forward with reshaping its position to be beneficial and practical in the lives of women, we must admit that appearance matters. The challenge comes with asserting this claim without submitting either to the values of female worth determined by the male gaze or the standards of impossible beauty set by many of the gate-keepers in the fashion world. Our hesitation to admit that appearance matters, prevents us from reclaiming and thus, redefining its place in our lives. We need to expand our conversations so we can reimagine the relationship between power woman and fashion so that it is no longer perceived through a lens of a zero-sum game.