Often in the political arena, women’s appearances are commented on and discussed more than their political agendas or accomplishments. The same pattern repeated itself in the 2016 presidential race.
Never judge a book by its cover.
The old adage repeated by mothers, fathers, teachers and children’s books takes a back seat once adulthood is reached. Employers hire by first impressions, fans critique celebrities on social media and first glance judgments are commonplace in today’s hyper-paced world.
Those in the public arena have eyes on them constantly, making appearance of vital importance. The new adage for those in public service should be, “Judgments are everywhere, so mind your appearance.”
“One of the reasons that appearance, and particularly fashion, play such an important role is because in the blink of an eye, people make judgments on who and what you are based on what they see,” said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO and co-founder of the public relations company Truscott Rossman and former political consultant.
That is particularly important for public officials. Certain expectations come with being a public servant.
“Your look has to be consistent with the role you have,” said Rossman-McKinney. “And if, for any reason, that look is inconsistent with what people expect, there’s likely to be controversy about it.”
Imagine the media coverage if the first lady were to wear a sheer mini dress, or if the President wore saggy jeans and a hoodie. Those visual identities do not fit with ideals of public service roles and would cause quite the controversy.
A controversy more so for women.
“There is definitely much more attention paid to women because we don’t have a uniform like men do,” said Rossman-McKinney.
President-elect Donald Trump wears his staple navy blue suit with a white collared shirt and a red or blue tie. His hair never changes. It’s a simple, easy, standard.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, can’t wear same thing over and over again or she will be criticized. Even her uniform consisting of pantsuits in varying colors and styles has caught some criticism for being a rainbow. If she wore the same color pantsuit every day, though, she would be criticized for being bland.
“I think she’s done a really wonderful job of adopting her style of uniform,” said Rossman-McKinney. “She’s very good about minimizing how much her wardrobe is part of the discussion anymore. But, at the same time, she’s been brilliant about how she uses her wardrobe.”
Women really do have it harder because women have so many more choices wardrobe wise: shoes, pants, skirts, accessories, hairstyle, blouses, jackets, dresses. Every detail is an opportunity–to be criticized or reinforce your message, said Rossman-McKinney.
Take Clinton’s signature pantsuit.
“If a woman is wearing a pantsuit, her legs are no longer part of the story,” said Rossman-McKinney. “How her legs look, what the height of her heels are, whether she’s trying to play the ‘woman card,’ and trying to be attractive. All of that goes to the wayside.”
Overall, it seems the best defense for criticism is to be professional and businesslike in appearance and be consistent in wardrobe.
Or, as Rossman-McKinney said, stand out with your words, not fashion.