Well Suited: Skirts, Pants, and Feminism

A-line silhouettes are everywhere this season. From Posh Spice’s new clothing line, to the Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, the tailored look is in, and it isn’t in the form of a Hilary Clinton pants suit. We are in the midst of the skirt suit’s return. 

Suits made for women is relatively new. They became available after World War I. These suits started off as a skirt and jacket combo. Then, in the second half of the century, coinciding with the rise of feminism, women began to wear pants suits consisting of jackets and pants. This was interpreted as a move toward a more egalitarian society.

Now, feminism is taking a new pendulum swing that some call the third wave of feminism. This third wave is hard to define. While the first wave focused on women’s right to vote, and the second wave fought for equal opportunity in the workforce and the end of sexual discrimination, the third wave lacks a cohesive goal.  So when I see a change from a Hillary Clinton type of female politician – mother of one, powerful husband, pants suit, short hair, lack of visible makeup – to a politician like Sarah Palin – mother of 5, husband’s job often takes a back seat to her career, long hair, visible makeup – – it gets me thinking.

Maybe the third wave of feminism is about femininity itself. Instead of trying to be men in a man’s world, women are succeeding as women in a man’s world. The skirt suit appears to be a symptom of this movement.

Now, I do not want to get into Palin’s politics here, only the politics represented by her clothing. Whether we view clothing as commodity or art, we all know we are judged by what we wear. I work in investment banking – traditionally a man’s world. There are very few women at most investment banking events, and a whole room of suits. With that comes an innate pressure to blend. Lately, I feel the urge to give up my long hair for a corporate hair cut, and dress as tailored as possible. I want to blend with the boys.

If I feel that pressure at an investment banking conference, I imagine it is present in the political arena, and even more so when you are running for president or vice president. During the Democratic primaries, when Hillary was running for president, we witnessed a whirl of fashion criticism entering political conversations. All people could talk about was Hillary’s haircut and androgynous clothing style. I had to laugh out loud when her cleavage made headlines.

That said, I find this focus on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s clothing both appalling and intriguing. Male candidates do not have to deal with this kind of scrutiny, but, at the same time, men are dealing with less clothing options. There are few variations when it comes to the male suit, haircut and makeup. I don’t consider that sexist. It is just a difference between men’s clothing and women’s clothing.

And that’s the important distinction I believe the skirt suit represents. Equality is not about men and women being the same. Men and women aren’t the same. However, the fight for equality in the second wave gave the mistaken impression that women have to be more like men in order to succeed.

Wearing a female pants suit – a power suit if you will – is an imitation of male power clothing. Now there are definitely variations of women’s pants suits that make them look more feminine, but it is still a woman’s suit imitating a man’s suit. It could also be argued that women’s right to wear pants is something worth fighting for since it wasn’t until the early 90s when women were allowed to wear pants on the senate floor. But I would argue that this is precisely the kind of change that made women feel the only kind of equality, is the androgynous kind.

The second wave of feminism got women’s foot in the door, and showed that women have equal skill and ability. They were able to show that women could be as much of an asset to the workforce as men. Now the third wave’s goal is to re-inject femininity back into the image of a successful and powerful woman.

Hillary consistently chooses the formerly viewed egalitarian, second wave choice – Pants. One of Hillary Clinton’s strengths during the preliminaries was that she is tough. She can be a man in a man’s world. She blends with the boys. Palin consistently chooses the the feminine, third wave choice – Skirts. Palin is different.

She hunts moose, sure. But Palin’s public persona is extremely feminine. She is not choosing the androgynous route. Palin is a woman in a man’s world. No corporate hair, nude lipstick, or pant suits for Sarah Palin.

Perhaps female public figures in powerful positions, like Palin, represent or will start a movement that will define feminism’s third wave; a movement toward women gaining power without sacrificing femininity.

Now that’s progressive!

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One response to “Well Suited: Skirts, Pants, and Feminism

  1. Pingback: Dressing the Part: The Proper Role of Fashion in the White House « Statements of Fashion

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