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Politics in History of American Fashion

The Fashion of Politics

The symbolism of fashion has often intersected with the closely watched actions of public figures in politics. Thus a candidate's choice of clothes has not been a mere matter of aesthetics, but of strategy. At America's first presidential inauguration, George Washington wore a suit of "citizen's dress, the cloth of American manufacture, of a dark brown color."105 The simplicity of the new president's clothing choice may have been self-consciously chosen to indicate the change in values commensurate with a new, republican government that was supposed to prize merit over birthright, integrity over opulence. Clearly the fact that the suit was of "American manufacture" is self-evidently significant. The United States was to be an independent nation, one that had struggled for its right to self-determination by boycotting English imports and relying on homegrown ingenuity and hard work to get the job done.

Opulence hasn't always paid in politics because it reminds regular voters of what they don't have, and might alienate them by reminding them that a sharp-dressing leader is not "of the people." In 1905, the powerful New York City ward boss George Washington Plunkitt—a member of the corrupt Democratic Party machine known as Tammany Hall—expounded on the "Dangers of the Dress Suit in Politics" at a shoeshine stand in New York City. As a journalist wrote down his advice, Plunkitt argued that "Puttin' on style don't pay in politics. The people won't stand for it." He advised aspiring officeholders to "live like your neighbors even if you have the means to live better. Make the poorest man in your district feel that he is your equal, or even a bit superior to you." Above all things, Plunkitt warned never to wear a dress suit, for it could make a man so proud and vain that it would prove his undoing. Even in Plunkitt's 1904 campaign, his enemies circulated a rumor that he had ordered a $10,000 car and a $125 dress suit; Plunkitt had to issue firm denials of those reports in order to redeem his reputation, and though he won the race, he still suffered at the polls. In some sense, the notion of "acting the superior" may have associated dress with not only class, but education. Plunkitt correspondingly cautioned not to show off "your learnin'," because that was "just puttin' on style in another way." In early twentieth century urban politics, according to a seasoned (if corrupt) veteran like Plunkitt, a simple, humble, and populist style was the only way to go.106

The Cleavage Controversy

Yet simple suits became more complicated once women began entering the political field in increasing numbers as the twentieth century progressed. What to wear? Should female candidates reinforce their femininity by wearing dresses or skirts, thereby reinforcing their exceptional status in a still overwhelmingly male realm? Or should they try to downplay their gender difference by wearing suits? This sort of dilemma might seem trivial or antiquated, but recent events have proven that gender and dress remain a hot-button issue, for better or for worse. When Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan devoted an entire article to the cleavage of presidential candidate and Senator Hillary Clinton in 2007, the subject matter created an outcry. Givhan analyzed Hillary Clinton's decolletage during one of her appearances on the Senate floor and argued, "To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation." Givhan compared it to "catching a man with his fly unzipped."107 Ironically, the actual outfit at the center of the great cleavage controversy of 2007 was not at all risqué; on that fateful day on the Senate floor, Hillary Clinton wore just an ordinary V-neck blouse under a pink jacket.

Outraged feminists and other critics spoke out against the article in droves; one woman contacted the Post to demand that the newspaper "do more stories on the private parts of male candidates."108 In a New York Times opinion piece, author Judith Warner contrasted Givhan's fashion world— "professional anorexics, sunken-chested young women whose attempts at cleavage are gerry-rigged for the cameras"—with the "normal world" of "real women" who "have other people on their minds than themselves, the kinds of women, in other words, whom you'd probably want to have running the country," and who "aren't likely to be so 'perfect' in appearance."109 The Clinton campaign capitalized on the public outrage by addressing the story in letters soliciting donations, in which an advisor wrote: "Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It's insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It's insulting to our daughters—and our sons—who are constantly pressured by the media to grow up too fast."110 Others argued that Hillary Clinton would do well to "take a leaf from the book of the powerful women in history who boldly used every weapon in their arsenals to hold their own in a world dominated by men: not only their brilliant minds but also their looks and their sexuality." In other words, these writers and pundits suggested, since historic female leaders like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great used their sexuality as another tool by which to gain or maintain power, Clinton ought to do the same. Of course, such critics did not address the important differences in time and place that might make it possible for modern women to compete in politics without having to resort to the powers of seduction, or submitting to gender-specific critiques of their appearance.


Just as politicians have employed certain styles of dress to look the part of populists or humble men, society's rebels have adopted a specifically contrarian fashion in order to maintain their stance apart from dominant trends and ideas. The beatnik poets and writers of the post-World War II period railed against conformity in every possible way, and are usually remembered for their black clothing and leather jackets. Yet those same leather jackets were also adopted by self-styled "rebels" who were in fact wildly popular cultural icons, such as Hollywood stars Marlon Brando (in The Wild One) and James Dean (in Rebel Without A Cause), and rock 'n roll star Elvis Presley.

Once a formerly maverick phenomenon like the leather jacket became "cool" as an emblem of youthful abandon, it ceased to be truly rebellious. This cycle occurred time and again, particularly once high fashion couturiers began taking ideas from "street style." In 1960, Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to utilize this unlikely inspiration in his "beatnik" collection for Dior. Although the couture establishment was not quite ready for such innovation, and young Saint Laurent was soon dismissed, the practice continued. As journalist Suzy Menkes has written, the point of the punk music and fashion trend of the 1970s "was that it was a trashy, violent, sexually explicit style designed to shock a complacent society." But after designers like Vivienne Westwood and Gianni Versace reinterpreted the intimidating look, "punk swiftly became just a symbol of an aggressive new generation who routed the left-over hippies and formed a sleek, new style clique."111 The true punks rocking out at CBGB's on New York's Lower East Side might have known who the authentic rebels were among them, but once their formerly marginalized look became adopted by rebellious teens and wealthy socialites, it became increasingly difficult to maintain an aura of shock value and outsider credibility.

By the 1990s, designer Marc Jacobs had debuted the seemingly oxymoronic "couture grunge"—a style that emulated the loose flannel shirts, shabby cardigans, wrinkled and torn pants, and the (mostly for women) notoriously thin body frames of Seattle's alternative rock scene. This look involved an element that many called "heroin chic," characterized by extremely thin models like Kate Moss, controversially alluding to drug use as an element of the latest trend. Trendy or not, no one wanted to pay designer prices for flannel shirts, and Jacobs's collection (for the Perry Ellis label) was shut down. But it had already made a profound effect on the fashion industry. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed fake nose rings and stick-on tattoos, which Menkes called "the ultimate example of fashion parodying the outrageous."112 Not even the anti-materialistic and anti-consumerist fashion of the 1960s hippies was sacrosanct. In the 1990s, Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana introduced a neo-hippie (or "haute hippie") look that simultaneously revitalized the Summer of Love style while undercutting its governing purpose: to embrace love and equality instead of money and hierarchy.

The Myth of the Bra Burner, and Other Hippie Notions

With the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, every traditional standard of dress, ideology, and behavior became suspect. Some women simply went bra-less, either as a reaction against the pointed, cone-shaped bras of the 1950s, as a part of the movement for a more natural and simple way of life, or because they simply felt more comfortable without constraints beneath their clothing. Yet the Women's Rights Movement also infused female fashion choices with a sense of real political meaning. Outside the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, held as always in Atlantic City, New Jersey, protestors filled a "freedom trash can" with objects of "oppression," among which were girdles, high-heeled shoes, brassieres, and copies of both Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The press erroneously called these protestors "bra burners"; bras were thrown in the trash as a symbolic gesture, but nothing was set on fire. Mythological or not, the flippant characterization of the "bra burner" has since become a powerful stereotype.113

Some physicians actually became concerned over the practice of going bra-less; Connecticut physician Alfred B. Sundquist wrote the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1972, inquiring whether these women should be warned by the American Medical Association "that a lack of mammary support may lead to the development of pendulous breasts caused by the stretching of the fibrous tissue attaching the breasts to the chest."114 But manufacturers gradually took the hint and by the late 1960s they were developing "no-bra bras" with more comfort in mind, including an elastic band that encircled the rib cage and what authors Elaine Benson and John Esten have called a "soft, body-conscious fluidity of line that has become a hallmark of the latter part of the twentieth century."115

Much of the protest surrounding the women's movement and fashion emerged from the increasingly stereotyped concepts of women and their clothing that had become so commonplace in advertisements and stores by the early 1960s. After World War II, clothes emphasized and even exaggerated the contours of the female body, epitomized by French designer Christian Dior's uncomfortable but wildly popular "New Look," with its prominent bust and narrow waist. Historian Ruth Rosen described the "lacquered bouffant hairdos and starkly outlined eyes and mouths" that "advertised an exaggerated if untouchable female sexuality."116 Skirts were either full and starched or so narrow that their wearers were forced to hobble. Bra cups were dramatically pointed, and an emphasis on large cup sizes increased in proportion to their prominence on Hollywood starlets.117 As activist and author Betty Friedan noted in her seminal 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique, these styles were increasingly marketed to younger and younger women as girls' marriage age continued to drop: "Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high. Manufacturers put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten. And on advertisement for a child's dress, sizes 3-6x, in the New York Times in the fall of 1960, said: 'She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.'"118 These fashions carried considerable political baggage, since they treated a woman's body as a sexual object that must be molded, shaped, and ornamented, all for the purpose of attracting a man (and little else). In this regard, women were not being treated as independent human beings with minds and purposes of their own; clothing manufacturers were not focusing on their customers' comfort or mobility, but were basing garment designs on their allure and physical presentation, regardless of any discomfort the wearer might endure. Of course, looking back on the history of women's fashion, the objectification of the postwar era was nothing new. If anything, the constricting girdles and dress designs of the fifties were continuous with previous periods, when women confined themselves and their daughters in corsets or bound their breasts to keep them flat in the 1920s. These were at once products of contemporary fads and of overarching social pressures that had long been placed on women to conform to certain cultural ideals of beauty and femininity.

Pull Your Pants Up

Clearly, clothing styles have continually intersected with political and social ideas about women of all ages. Since the changes in popular ideas about childhood took hold in the mid-1700s, and the concept of the teenager emerged in the 1950s, young people have similarly played a central role in the history of clothes. New fashion trends have long provoked consternation and even alarm among older and more traditional segments of American society, and the latest fads are no exception. If anything, community organizations and local governments have mounted some of the most forceful efforts in recent history to prohibit the latest vogues from maintaining their grip on American youth. Extremely baggy pants—worn very low on the waist so as to expose the boxer shorts, in a style known as "saggin'"—have been a popular look since they were first showcased by hip hop music figures in the 1990s. The sagging pants style actually originated with prison inmates, whose uniforms lacked belts because prison officials wanted to prevent suicides. Hip hop artists—some of whom had served time in prison themselves—adopted the saggin' style from the inmates, and through promotional photos, magazines, and music videos, the fad soon spread throughout cities and suburbs across the nation. Young men, both black and white, who have been the central demographic for hip hop artists and their music, are also the group most likely to adopt the saggin' style. Hit tracks—like rapper Sisqó's "Thong Song" of 2000, which implored young women to "let me see that thong"—encouraged a trend in which young women wore their thong underwear above the waistline of their low-rise jeans, or as a "Brazilian" bikini bottom on the beach.119 To combat these trends, some state legislatures—such as Virginia's—tried to pass legislation forbidding such "intentional display[s]" of undergarments, under penalty of a fine. The bill's proponents characterized it as a "vote for character" that would set a standard for the whole country to follow.120 In December 2007, the Board of Education in Atlanta unanimously approved a ban on "baggy oversized clothing" that included "sagging shorts or trousers" in the city's schools.121

Yet these attempts to regulate transgressive youth fashion have yielded mixed results. In the case of Virginia, critics pointed out the futility of trying to eradicate popular fashion trends like baggy pants or visible thongs via legislation. By making an official attempt at wiping out a phenomenon considered "cool" because it defied traditional notions of respectability, the legislature would only underscore its appeal to youthful rebellion. Critics argued that trends, by definition, were fleeting and would go away with time, and that attempts to censor such forms of self-expression would only ensure their persistence in popular culture. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that legislating a "state dress code" was simply a futile endeavor, and that the proposed laws would inevitably target—and therefore racially profile—young black men for more scrutiny than they already received (although supporters of the legislation have argued that both black and white men have adopted the saggy pants look). Constitutionally, the ACLU and other civil-liberties advocates argued that such legislation would establish dangerously anti-democratic precedents in American jurisprudence, since they represented infringements on the public's right to self-expression. The Virginia bill quickly died in state senate committee, but similar bills succeeded in seven different Louisiana parishes in August 2004; the popular Daily Show program mocked these efforts as the "Thong of the South."122 Violators of the Lafourche Parish, Louisiana bill—which banned saggy pants—would have to pay $50 for the first offense, $100 if fined twice, and $100 plus community service if they were cited three times. Lindel Toups, a councilman who supported the new legislation in Lafourche Parish, argued that "our kids got away from us," and declared that parents needed to retake control in the name of public decency.123

In an alternate approach, Dallas's Deputy Mayor Dwaine Caraway teamed up with rapper Dewayne Brown (who goes by the stage name "Dooney") to promote a song aimed at local youth: "Pull Your Pants Up." Caraway himself had previously attempted to pass a "saggin' ordinance," but ran into the same sort of constitutional troubles as his counterparts in other states. Instead, he and Dooney tried "for the hearts and minds of [Dallas's] young people" by channeling hip hop culture to spread a new message, and they promoted their anthem to public decency with billboard space donated by the ClearChannel media conglomorate.124 This attempt nonetheless ran into its own set of complications: on the track, Dooney connoted sagging with homosexuality by taunting men who look like they live "on the down low." This taunt invoked the homophobia that has long been a significant presence in hip hop lyrics and culture, and Dooney later apologized to the gay community for it on his MySpace page, although he still maintained that his Christian belief system made him opposed to homosexuality.125 Clearly American society, black and white, young and old, remains plagued by myriad divisions that not only encompass fashion trends but also intertwine with them.

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