A plethora of news articles circulated recently focusing on Hillary Clinton’s fashion choice to wear an Armani jacket estimated to cost about $8,000 while giving a speech on the topic of income inequality.
Being the first female presidential candidate has put her in a unique situation. With no previous female president to guide her fashion choices, she is constantly trying to define what a female president should look like by adjusting her image to be both relatable to the public and aspirational.
In a society programmed by visual cues, there is no question that fashion plays an integral role in creating a message about a person’s preferences and status.
How people dress can communicate specific tastes in clothing, but it signifies much more meaning than that to those around them. It’s a nonverbal form of communication to others about who they are and how they want the world to perceive them.
That’s quite a powerful statement to make based strictly on the clothing worn by an individual, but in a society obsessed with branding exacerbated by Instagram photos and Facebook posts, visual cues have become a generalized way to define who we are and how we want others to view us.
Take, for example, a recent study that looked at subjects wearing different coats — a medical doctor’s coat, a painter’s coat and no coat. The researchers found that subjects’ sustained attention increased while wearing the doctor’s coat in a way that their attention did not increase while wearing the painter’s or no coat.
A simple doctor’s coat was able to sustain a level of attention because of the meaning behind the garment. We have come to recognize that a doctor’s coat represents years of education and training in a specialty that requires intelligence and dedication to accomplish. Therefore, this coat symbolized a level of education and work ethic that generally mandates respect and attention from the public.
Clinton has been berated in the past for her choice of nonflattering, generic suits that were most likely chosen because they didn’t state much about her personality or brand preferences.
Perhaps wearing the Armani jacket was meant to elevate her position of power and express her new level of success. In this case, it backfired. Why? Because the exorbitant price of the jacket did not sustain her previous campaign message that she is an empathizer to the American middle class.
It is important to point out that the male candidates have not been under the same scrutiny for their expensive wardrobe choices. In comparison, Donald Trump is a fan of Brioni bespoke suits that can range from $5,000 to $17,000. One could argue that fashion has a sexist bias.
Perhaps one person who gets it right is first lady Michelle Obama, who has been revered as a style icon. Her wardrobe is very deliberate in a way that sends messages to the world about who she is at a specific moment.
In some situations she is portrayed as the dedicated mother of two in a simple pair of jeans and an American-made sweater. In others, she will showcase a $10,000 designer gown while attending a political fundraiser. These images are circulated across the world, and they send stronger messages about who she is than a speech she may give at a fundraiser.
Simply put, clothing is an important form of communication.
When we see a well-dressed individual in clothing brands that we associate with luxury, we understand that this individual has a level of success not achieved by the masses. But some individuals may balk at this and feel that this person is advertising wealth to get attention.
In both cases, the clothing choices a person wears is sending messages about how that person wants to be perceived by others. Not only superficial messages such as whether the person is attractive or unattractive, but more about personal beliefs, education and economic status. We should never underestimate the power of communication that clothing can initiate. In Clinton’s case, she may never forget.
Jessica Ciarla is a fashion designer and a lecturer of textiles and apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News and Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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