Hillary Clinton’s campaign coverage: Pantsuit journalism

imrsWhat’s more important to cover about Hillary Rodham Clinton and her run for the presidency? Her policies or her pantsuits? At least two of the nation’s top newspapers seem to think it’s both.

Clinton delivered a detailed speech with a populist message before a large crowd on Roosevelt Island in the second phase of her campaign launch. Although there were stories about the specifics of her proposals, of course we also had the chance to read all about her choice of pantsuit.

A New York Times story gave a detailed description of Clinton in a blue Ralph Lauren pantsuit. “She stuck out a mile, matched her H campaign logo — which was also the design of her stage — and looked appropriately patriotic, especially when standing next to Bill Clinton in his red polo,” says Vanessa Friedman in her “On the Runway” column.

But obviously, there must be a problem. There’s a “possible weak spot” in Clinton’s relationship with designer Ralph Lauren, Friedman writes. “Because for a candidate who has been pushing her connection to, and understanding of, the middle class — and whose speech while wearing the pantsuit was largely about closing the income gap — Ralph Lauren is a relatively inaccessible brand.

“An average Ralph Lauren Women’s Collection pantsuit, which this was — not, in other words, a style from the more accessible line, Lauren Ralph Lauren — is a few thousand dollars. … That is out of reach for most voters.”

So are we to assume that Friedman’s next column will be on the custom-made suits of male candidates? Somehow, I doubt it.

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, on the other hand, takes a different tack. In her style blog, she claims that Clinton has embraced the pantsuit as a campaign theme, making jokes about her appearance and all of the attention paid to it.

“Clinton has gone on the offensive by finding humor in her fashion foibles and beauty regimen,” Givhan writes. “The fashion monster has — for the moment — been wrestled into submission. Clinton stands victorious.”

Clinton now talks about dyeing her hair and how no one will see her turn gray. Givhan calls it an “everywoman” comment. “Fashion is now working for her — as a pleasure, an aesthetic proposition, as well as a campaign symbol,” Givhan writes.

So we haven’t had one presidential debate yet, but we’ve had multiple analyses about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Thanks, New York Times and Washington Post, for showing us your priorities.

Friedman and Givhan are two women who cover fashion for a living, so it makes sense for them to write about it, even if you think their conclusions are vapid. Still — do Hillary’s pantsuits deserve this much attention? And is anyone paying attention to what the men are wearing?

Apparently, someone is. According to a story from CNN Money, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who likes to project an “everyman” image, brags that he buys his shirts at Kohl’s — a Milwaukee-based chain — and that his suits come from Jos. A. Bank, where suits average $225 and which frequently offers promotional offers like “buy one, get two free.”

But apparently no other candidate would dish. “Spokespersons for Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did not respond for comment. Senator Rand Paul’s spokesperson declined to comment,” the CNN story says. “While female politicians have long complained about the focus on their appearance, it’s a sign of the times that male candidates now tout their own wardrobe choices.”

One story about Walker and his cheap suits isn’t exactly leveling the playing field when it comes to focusing on a candidate’s appearance.

When President Obama was still a candidate, there was reporting about the $1,500 suits he favored from a Chicago-based manufacturer, Hart Schaffner & Marx. Just as Clinton is willing to buy pantsuits from an American designer like Lauren, Obama wanted to help the firm, which faced a rough patch during the Great Recession.

The shopping service Gilt isn’t afraid of touting a little presidential preference. “If looking presidential is your sartorial goal, look no further than Hart Schaffner & Marx. Based in Chicago, this iconic men’s clothing label outfitted President Barack Obama — an unabashed fan — for his 2008 acceptance speech and 2009 inaugural address,” read the Gilt website.

I’d hate to see what such a site would write about a female candidate’s choice of designer.

The group “Name it. Change it.,” a nonpartisan joint project of the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, works to identify, prevent, and end sexist media coverage of female candidates. Its extensive research gives numerous examples of such coverage of female candidates of both parties. Examples include a Boston radio station endorsing a female candidate because she had a “banging little body” and a “tight little butt,” and a male pundit describing a female candidate as being “absolutely adorable.”

But the sexism doesn’t have to be so blatant. “When the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls,” one of the group’s studies found. “This finding held true whether the coverage of a woman candidate’s appearance was framed positively, negatively, or in neutral terms.”

One of the best lines from comedian Cecily Strong at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner was a dig at coverage of Hillary Clinton’s fashions. She asked all of the members of the media to raise their right hands and pledge: “I solemnly swear not to comment on Hillary Clinton’s appearance, because that is not journalism.”

Didn’t last long, did it?

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