By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Among the endless reasons I will never run for public office is a deep-seated fear of having my wardrobe subject to the fashion police. Excuse me, the fashion shrinks—those media monitors who seek deep meaning in every shoe, sexual clues in every hemline, and psychological insights in every shirt collar.
Just imagine the casual summer wardrobe that I am modeling so stylishly at this very moment. What would the fashionbabblers have to say about my well-worn khaki capris? That they display a certain comfort-first sensibility? Or does that flash of calf reveal a senior citizen insouciance? What of the green polo shirt? Does it symbolize my bond with the Land’s End sisterhood? Or my rebellion from the designer-label sophisticate? And what to make of my lime-colored Crocs with their peek-a-boo holes. Do they express a certain post-feminist funkiness? Or do they expose a feminine (if chipped) pedicure?
This self-couture-analysis comes in response to the latest piece on Hillary Clinton’s attire by The Washington Post’s resident fashionista. Robin Givhan’s cultural critique began with a holy-moly observation: “There was cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton.”
Givhan’s 750-word plunge into the shirt of the presidential candidate had women throwing up their hands (among other things) all over the blogosphere. Cleavage! Omigod! As one blogger responded, the senator has breasts. Two of them. Details at 11.
Only in Washington would a fashion reporter get tips watching C-SPAN2. But the Post piece managed to make a media mountain out of a half-inch valley. As one of the thousands who have scrutinized the black V-neck top on the Internet, I can attest that it barely (in both senses of the word) fits Wikipedia’s definition of cleavage, as in: “The cleft created by the partial exposure of a woman’s breasts, especially when exposed by low-cut clothing.”
Nevertheless, Givhan fashionbabbled the heck out of the V-neck. Clinton’s cleavage, she wrote, was a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity.” It was “like catching a man with his fly unzipped.” It was also a “teasing display.” And to wrap things up, she explained: “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”
Not even Nora Ephron, who wrote a book called “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” could have spent more energy deconstructing a neckline. Isn’t there, somewhere, a booby prize for covering pulchritude instead of policy?
Hillary is not the only female pol to have made more news with what she wore than what she said. Just a few weeks ago, a camera from on high focused down on the chest of Jacqui Smith, the British home secretary, and created what some Brits called the Tempest in a D-Cup. The failed female candidate for president of France, Segolene Royal, was captured in a bikini looking like an ad for “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” Meanwhile, Condi Rice has had her high-heeled boots put on the couture couch and Nancy Pelosi has had her suits power-rated.
Candidates’ wives too—as Hillary well knows—have long been subject to scrutiny. Joe Scarborough wins the prize for trash-talking Jeri Thompson, second wife of Fred Thompson. In his best Don Imus voice, Scarborough asked, “Do you think she works the pole?” He did not mean Gallup.
Yes, men in politics are also subject to fashionbabbling about masculinity. Al Gore was famously mocked for wearing earth tones. Barack Obama was dubbed the pinup in the 2008 swimsuit competition. John Edwards was YouTubed for styling his hair. Even John McCain’s V-neck sweater was labeled, at least, “metrosexual.” But this is nothing like what happens to women.
I do not say this in a lofty, superior voice. Do I notice what a woman wears? You bet. At the CNN/YouTube debate, Hillary was coral in a sea of gray. Watching her campaign, I’m glad she’s finally gotten it right—right colors, right style, right fit. I’d give her clothes the female presidential seal of approval. But is there one?
In the end, the question is not whether a candidate can show a hint of breast but whether you can have breasts and be president. It’s not a matter of cleavage in fashion but cleavage in the voting population. Does anyone remember what Hillary was talking about on C-SPAN2? Education. Need I say more?
Fashionbabblers of the world, let me remind you of the famous quote attributed to Sigmund Freud: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a V-neck is just a V-neck.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group