When the candidates face each other in the first presidential debate, it’s not just what they say, but how they present themselves that will be scrutinised, argues Libby Banks.

When Hillary Clinton takes the stage at the first presidential debate, she will make history. Over the past few months the level of scrutiny faced by the first female candidate for president of the United States has ramped up: her policies, her emails, her relationships have been critiqued, dissected and analysed. And so have her clothes.

The fixation on clothes and hair in the political bubble is nowhere more prevalent than in contemporary US politics. Clinton’s white suit worn at the Democratic Convention was deconstructed by commentators in countless ways: a self-conscious comparison to a beacon of light; a nod to the white uniforms worn by the women’s suffrage movement; a reference to the gleaming white of the Stars and Stripes. Donald Trump, perhaps to a lesser extent, has been scrutinised and often ridiculed for his tan, his boxy suits, his hairstyle and even his hand size.

It can all seem rather silly, not to mention irrelevant, when it comes to the business of running a country. But it is naïve to assume that looks don’t matter in politics – the truth is that modern politicians rely on both substance and image. This is hardly a new concept. In the 1960s, when elections became TV events, the televised debate between Nixon and the cool, dapper Kennedy is cited as instrumental to the latter’s victory.

Studies show appearance in politics matters more than we’d like to admit. In a 2006 study published in Psychological Science and led by Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, volunteers who briefly glanced at photos of unfamiliar political candidates could predict who would win almost 70% of the 2006 Senate and House elections. Seen in this light, Marco Rubio’s comment about Trump’s small hands goes beyond catty quip – it was an indirect attempt to undermine Trump’s ability as a leader.

“We live in a very visual society,” says Corey Roche, a stylist who works with a mix of Hollywood and Washington clients. “Fashion is a universal language, and believe it or not, it is one of the first and lasting impressions.”

Dr Rebecca Arnold, lecturer in the history of dress and textiles at the Courtauld Institute, agrees that the interest in how politicians look is intensified in the age of social media, where news is often an image-led medium. “It reflects our culture as a whole – there is a wider obsession with appearance and self-presentation, sharpened by digital media”.

But, Dr Arnold adds, there is an undeniable gender skew. “Women are still focused on more, and lack the well-established uniform of men’s suiting. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t peculiar to female politicians – women in general are scrutinised more and judged more harshly for their choices.”

This is because role models for women in power remain elusive, argues Lauren A Rothman, a Washington DC-based stylist and author of Style Bible: What To Wear To Work. “We don’t have a lot of examples of what women in power look like.” By contrast what men wear rarely gets noticed. “For men there is a uniform involved in running the country, it’s the blue suit with the white shirt and the red or the blue tie. But it’s yet to be developed for women. I think we will see many iterations of what female power dressing looks like as more women break boundaries”.

Ladies first

Traditionally the First Ladies and politicians’ wives have taken the fashion risks. Angela Merkel tends to adapt the male uniform, buying into the belief that for a woman to appear powerful in what was once a man’s world, she should dress like a man. It is a sartorial strategy employed by Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and, to an extent, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Margaret Thatcher took a different tack with pussy bows, pearls and handbags to create an image that verged on caricature, while the former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was known for her hyper-feminine frocks laden with lace. Now Hillary Clinton and Theresa May, two more women in power, are changing what it means to dress like a world leader.

From her love of Vogue to her statement necklaces, Theresa May’s unabashed enthusiasm for fashion has been well documented. The Prime Minister demonstrates that enjoying fashion and dealing with Article 50 are not incompatible. It is a positive message for young women – they can have an interest in clothes while holding down a serious job. But her use of fashion is also canny. The moment she stood in front of 10 Downing Street in her leopard print kitten heels and Amanda Wakeley coat, her image was all over the internet before anyone had time to digest what she said. The newly minted prime minister seems to inherently understand that clothes are one of the few universal subjects. For May, her interest in fashion humanises and adds multiple dimensions to her steely persona. It’s a strategy employed by her former boss who, when rebranding the Conservative Party’s nasty rep, chose to do it wearing Converse All Stars.

Clinton may not share May’s overt love of clothes, but she certainly recognises their value. Her attitude to fashion has changed since the last US presidential election; she has hired Kristina Schake, former aide to Michelle Obama, to help shape her image and signed up a make-up artist who worked on Veep. She even appeared in US Vogue, a publication she previously avoided. Leather, beading, and plenty of Armani are suddenly on the agenda.

“When she ran last time, the only signature to her style was that she was dressing like a man. Now she is using her femininity as an asset, and clothes are a way of conveying that,” observes Rothman. “Whether it’s in showing herself as a mother and a grandmother, or showing a picture of a rack with clothing on Instagram, she is saying I am woman”. In other words, fashion has become a weapon Clinton can incorporate into political strategy.

Keeping it real?

The key to approaching how politicians dress – regardless of gender  ̶  is about decoding the intention, not whether the outfit is on-trend, adds Dr Arnold. “I think that fashion itself is avoided by most politicians, it’s more about values they want to project.”

Rothman agrees. “It is all part of visual messaging; there are some politicians who thrive on looking like ‘what a politician looks like’. Think of the classic Capitol Hill politician in wire-rim glasses, oversized clothing and a mustard stain on the jacket; never assume politicians are badly dressed because they have no idea what they’re doing.” Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has been criticised by many – including David Cameron’s own mother – for shunning the Westminster norm.

Roche says that budget is always a touchy subject with his Washington clients because they must appear relatable. He refers to Joe Biden, who was “annihilated for wearing $800 (£620) loafers even though he was wealthy prior to his political service”. François Hollande received similar treatment for his €10,000-a-year (£8,700) coiffure habit.

Donald Trump has taken note, Rothman suggests. “He is trying to fit the mould of dressing like a politician, we’re not seeing that expertly tailored suave look and his suiting is sometimes oversized,” Rothman adds. “Trump is choosing to dress like a politician rather than a Wall Street financier and that helps him win support.”

The boxy suits and ties are a marked departure from Barack Obama’s slim-cut tailoring with a tieless roll-sleeved shirt. Trump’s aesthetic could be read as a nod to mid-1980s Reaganism, often cited by Republicans as America’s ‘good old days’. He has remained staunchly faithful to his blue suits throughout the campaign, never straying into slacks or sportswear. Occasionally he skips the tie and puts on a Make America Great Again baseball cap, but the blue suit remains.  This contributes to his ‘CEO of the country’ narrative, and evokes an old-school type of business leader.

Even prior to running for president, Trump instinctively understood the importance of image. The hair and the tan may have been mocked throughout the decades, but they have served to calcify Trump, and what he stands for, in the minds of voters.

While candidates should be fairly and seriously judged on the substance of their message, in this image-led era of news, it would be foolish to ignore carefully managed visual signals candidates that both sexes send. For a politician on the world stage today, getting the clothes right can be invaluable.

But when Trump and Clinton meet in debate, Rothman does not expect any style shocks on the stage. “In a world of power dressing, it is about being instantly recognisable, so for Hillary it’ll be the pantsuit and for Trump it’ll be about the slightly oversized suit and, of course, the signature hair.”

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