The politics of cleavage and capris

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • Star Tribune Reader's Representative
  • August 18, 2007 - 5:11 PM

The buzz after Sen. Hillary Clinton's speech on the U.S. Senate floor in July was about how her V-neck allowed for a tiny glimpse of cleavage. After a recent presidential debate with John Edwards and Barack Obama, the chatter was all about their lighthearted critique of Clinton's jacket.

Controversy over Clinton's fashion choices, what they mean and whether they merit coverage has consumed far more newsprint and air time than any policy points the woman who may one day lead the free world made on the Senate floor or in that debate.

Here in Minnesota, the Star Tribune has picked up wire stories on all of that and recently added some local fashion commentary. We've read all about U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's love for kitten heels and what she was wearing when she realized she was a Republican in a Minnesota Profile on July 22. Now comes Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau's capris and nautical-theme t-shirt in a description of a news conference about the bridge collapse.

When is the way someone looks or the clothes he or she wears relevant to that person's performance as a public official? Are these telling details that illuminate the person or ways that writers, intentionally or unintentionally, make female officials appear lightweight and frivolous?

The Star Tribune didn't publish the original cleavage story, but picked up a news story on the controversy afterwards, including a small image of Clinton and her cleavage as seen on C-SPAN2. In that piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan of the Washington Post defended her story: "It was a piece about a public person's appearance on the Senate floor that was surprising because of the location and because of the person. It's disingenuous to think that revealing cleavage, any amount of it, in that kind of situation is a nonissue."

Yet if fashion and physique are so relevant, why do we so seldom read about what male candidates and officials decided to wear today?

Feature writer Kim Ode said she pauses to carefully consider before adding physical description. Why? "Because you know these kinds of questions are going to be raised" when the description is of female officials and candidates, Ode said. The questions aren't raised as often about men, perhaps because their more uniform dress makes them less visually interesting for writers to describe.

"When we get into trouble is when we don't follow through on why we shared this detail," said Ode, who wrote the Minnesota Profile on Bachmann that described her wearing "sneakers and a trim jogging suit, her hair clipped back," her love of "kitten-heeled slides." Ode quoted Bachmann describing that transformational moment when she realized she was a Republican by recalling what clothes she was wearing.

When she writes about men, Ode mines them for rich, visual detail as well. "Whenever we do it, we need to make sure there's a clear purpose in the description," Ode said.

Reporter Rochelle Olson was considering similar issues as she watched Molnau at the bridge news conference Aug. 6. in preparation for writing a profile of the lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner.

"Part of the story was about her leadership style at MnDOT. There were questions that had been raised about whether she or Bob McFarlin [her assistant] was really running the agency.

"She got up and briefly introduced McFarlin. He was wearing a suit or a sports coat and tie." Molnau, Olson wrote the next Sunday, was "wearing white capri pants and a nautical theme T-shirt."

Olson said she thought Molnau's apparel was "not just casual, it was extremely casual, bordering on disrespectful. The nautical theme was strange, given there were bodies in the river. I don't think I've ever seen a public official at that level dressed that casually at an official event."

I like to read colorful, detailed descriptions. I do worry that describing women comes more easily to writers and slips into coverage more often, risking the impression that appearance is more key to understanding women than men.

When reporters prepared quick profiles of Minnesota's three new representatives to Congress last November, the only profile that noted how someone was dressed was of Bachmann, the lone woman.

Searching the Star Tribune's archives for the word "style" and the Democratic candidates' names, Clinton's fashion choices come up. For Obama, references to "cool, professorial style" and "his masterful stump style" result. A photo of Obama frolicking in the Hawaiian surf on vacation got lots of coverage elsewhere, but didn't make the Star Tribune. John Edwards' $400 haircut merited an eight-inch wire story on page A7 and a tiny picture in which his hair was hard to see. So far, Republican candidates seem to have eluded the fashionistas.

Editors and reporters need to ensure officials and candidates are described with equal vigor, no matter their gender. As a lover of colorful writing, I would advocate against achieving that by simply dropping descriptions of women. Instead, let it rip more often about images some men project -- the midlife hair crises that can transform men into human Chia Pets overnight, the uninspiring business uniforms they don, the bold fashion statements male state legislators have made with vivid ties, the rare elegance of a well-dressed man.

Surely all of that is as revealing as a half-inch of Hillary Clinton's cleavage.

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