Communication Currents

The Dress Code

December 1, 2009
Political Communication, Visual Communication

In October 2009, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright unveiled her collection of fashion pins in the Tiffany and Company Gallery of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.The pins, she said, helped her to communicate messages to those whom she met as Secretary of State. Perhaps most famously, when meeting with then-president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Secretary Albright wore a snake pin to subtly counter an Iraqi poem that described her as a serpent. She has continued to wear the pins--mostly costume pieces--and notes that they are a fun way to signal a mood for an event. Instead of reporting about their views on issues, many journalists focus on clothing styles and hairdos. It seems particularly wise and strategic that if famous women can't beat the media attention focused so intently on their appearance, they should join them by embedding messages in their styles.

Hearing about the display of Madeleine Albright's pins, and her book, Read My Pins I started to think about other public women who have communicated—perhaps quite intentionally—important messages with their style. The late Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator from Maine always wore a fresh rose. When I visited The Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum in Skowhegan, Maine, I saw the specially designed, miniscule water holder that was rigged up to keep the flower fresh. A timelessly tailored, usually dark colored business suit or dress allowed her to blend into the male bastion of politics, but her touch of the trademark fresh rose, Senator Smith said, “allowed me to remain ladylike.”

As a senator and presidential candidate, and now as Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton consistently wears pantsuits and has even made reference to them in two significant speeches that she has given. After she won a New York senate seat, she recounted, in her victory speech, “Sixty-two counties, sixteen months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later, because of you, we are here!” And again in her Democratic National Convention speech in 2008, resplendent in a bright orange pantsuit, she assuaged the raw nerves of her fervent supporters who were none too happy to see her lose the nomination to Barack Obama. She urged them to "unite as a single party with a single purpose." She appealed to the "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits"—a nod to the young adult book series, and movie "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"—to embrace Barack Obama as their candidate.  

First Lady Michelle Obama unapologetically continues to bare her impressively toned arms, most recently on the cover of the October 2009 Prevention magazine, perhaps in an effort to remind women to be strong, take care of themselves, and also signal that she isn't likely to cover up just because opinion columnists and pundits say she should. In Prevention magazine, Mrs. Obama describes her exercise and fitness routine and encourages women to continue to take care of themselves as they age. Another style signal from our first lady is reminiscent of then-vice presidential candidate's Richard Nixon's description of his wife Pat Nixon's “respectable Republican cloth coat.” First Lady Obama frequently dresses in moderately-priced clothing, communicating, perhaps that in lean economic times, we all need to find places to save money. Like many first ladies before her, the fashion preferences of Mrs. Obama are being closely watched. CNN reports that there is a blog that tracks the first lady's daily fashion choices. The personal style of our public women has always been a fascination to the press, and the public and some astute public women seem to be putting their messages where they'll get the most attention. They are wearing them.

About the author (s)

Nichola D. Gutgold

Pennsylvania State University

Associate Professor