Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hillary is ready for us now

This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. After months (years?) of #ReadyForHillary, Hillary Clinton is announcing her run for President tomorrow. She will surely be one of the most watched candidates in history. Are you ready?

I was on HUFFPOST LIVE to discuss her image in announcing her run with Ricky Camilleri and Ben Kamisar. Watch:

You can also see all our past coverage of Hillary Clinton's image, going back to 2009.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Give Style: Beauty Box 5

There's a lot of holiday shopping going on this weekend. Are you doing yours? Monthly subscription boxes have become all the rage, sending cosmetics, fragrances, even craft projects by mail. A monthly surprise can be a treat as a gift, but often I'm skeptical of paying upwards of $20 for samples of products that will run you four times as much to buy in full size, even if you find something you like.

But I got to try a box of samples this week that I actually like.
This is my Beauty Box 5 box from December.

The samples in my Beauty Box 5 box were a mix of brands that are familiar (Aveeno) and some that were new to me (Bellapierre cosmetics). Everything was useable, with the Every Beauty makeup remover pads being the most practical - I'll put those in my toiletry bag for Christmas travel - and the glittery eyeshadow being the most niche - a fun change of pace for evening holiday parties. If I want more of my favorite product from this box, the Nubar nail polish, it's only going to set me back $8.

Subscriptions to anything make great last-minute gifts because "it's in the mail" is part of the deal. Beauty Box 5 subscriptions come in varying lengths, and include a credit for you. Seems like a win-win.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Barbara Boxer's new hair style

Senator Barbara Boxer has been sporting a shorter and lighter hairstyle since June. Have you noticed? Here she is last week in the Senate, discussing the Affordable Care Act:

As my regular readers will surely remember, Senator Boxer's hair made headlines in 2010, when her opponent Carly Fiorina called her long bob "so yesterday."

Three years later, is this style more modern? Definitely. The long sideswept bangs are very much of this decade. And I suspect it's easier for her to care for as well - remember, a short hairstyle is only less work if it also fits with your natural texture. If the cut needs a straightener, curling iron, or multiple products, it will be work at any length.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Tone on tone success for Collins

Senator Susan Collins was on PBS News Hour last week to talk NSA, causes of the shut down, and bipartisanship. She wore green:

If you were ever looking for a model of good style in the Senate, here she is. This green top and jacket are just the right shade for Senator Collins and the color looks good both under the TV lights and against the pale marble backdrop of the Capitol. Her makeup is tasteful - notice how she has chosen to add color on the cheeks and lips but not the eyes, for balance.

My favorite part of this outfit is the necklace. It hits her first balance point just right, and the shape of the pendant softly echoes the shape of her face. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Are we headed for another Zoot Suit Riot?

We know that it's important for our elected officials to have a game plan for their casual wear. As I discussed with the National Post in Canada a few weeks ago, the aftermath of a natural disaster is an especially critical time to trade suits and ties for boots and windbreakers. These clothes show the politicians are ready for anything, literally rolling up their sleeves to help make things better.

But what happens when clothing begins to take on a life of its own, to signify membership in a group or subculture that itself could imply certain attitudes, beliefs or political views? Sociologists call these "communities of style."

Click to enlarge. From

Smithsonian expert Diana Baird N’Diaye created this infographic to explain the idea of clothing as "the visual vocabulary of a community." Those communities can be colleagues or countrymen, Rocky Horror fans or supporters of a sports team. While some of these symbols and identifications are obvious, others depend on context, both for the viewer and the wearer. "Why do I wear my pants so low?" garners three possible answers: "You're imitating an inmate!" "My friends all do it!" and "It looks cool!"

Seventy years ago, similar answers could have been applied to young men wearing zoot suits, a surprisingly political slice of fashion history given close examination by Kathy Peiss in her book, Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style.

A "zoot suit" was characterized by a long jacket with sloping shoulders, paired with pants that were very wide at the knees and pegged in narrowly at the ankles. They came in bright, contrasting colors and were often paired with wide-brimmed hats over long hair and a very long watch chain at the waist. 

The origins of the zoot suit are contested, but it's generally accepted that the trend was picked up in earnest and made popular among young African American men in Harlem in the 1930s, and popped up in large and small cities across the country, not only on African Americans, but also Filipinos, whites (especially swing dance enthusiasts) and especially Mexican Americans. A burgeoning community of young Mexican American men in Los Angeles, newly flush with cash in the early 1940s from military industrial jobs, spent their time in dance clubs, wearing these flashy suits and dancing. Peiss points out that "zoot suits could be controversial within these communities of color even before they became items that provoked fear and anxiety among white Americans. The style threatened African American and Mexican American community leaders, who insisted that respectable appearance and appropriate behavior would help secure the safety and status of these groups."

The War Production Board (WPB) tried actively to influence fashion styles to conserve on wool and cotton fabrics needed for military uniforms. It started by regulating against the second pair of pants that commonly came with suits, then cuffs, patch pockets and wide lapels - all elements that required more fabric to create. The idea of a narrow silhouette for men's and women's clothing was actively promoted as "patriotic" and written in to law. Production of the zoot suit style was specifically banned by the WPB in September 1942, rendering the style unpatriotic in some circles, but not all. Even the US Senate was divided on the issue, with some Senators backing up the WPB and others allowing that youthful fashion styles could not realistically harm the war effort. The production ban was difficult to enforce, and sales of the style continued and even increased, with the allure of forbidden fruit. Stores sold "back stock," advising customers to get the suits while they still could after production had been disallowed. Restrictions on cotton and wool shifted fabrication to synthetic fabrics like rayon, which also had the advantage of being available in ever-brighter colors.

By June 1943, the style's popularity had reached an all time high, and so had racial tensions in Los Angeles. Beginning on June 3, white sailors left military bases in Long Beach and elsewhere and headed into the city in search of young Mexican American men in zoot suits. Per Peiss, they "prowled the streets, searched nightclubs, and invaded movie theaters, forcing the managers to turn on the lights so they could identify youths by their attire. When they found a zoot suiter, they beat him, stripped him of his pants, and tore his jacket." Over the course of the next four days, they were joined by increasing numbers of civilians, targeting not only Mexican Americans but also some African Americans and Filipinos, and not all in zoot suits. By June 7, there were 5,000 people in downtown Los Angeles either looking for a fight or looking for one to watch. Police finally took action, but mostly by arresting Mexican American men, and military authorities kept servicemen on base and off the streets. By June 8 it was over, but only after more than 100 people had been seriously injured. No one died. Only two of the white servicemen were arrested.

The press began referring to these events immediately as the "zoot suit riots" and the moniker has stayed with them ever since. The zoot suit didn't cause the riots, but (as Peiss puts it) "the zoot suit became a material, tangible emblem, distilling the everyday encounters and cultural clashes of ordinary men into legible signs. . . . It had become a clothing style with political implications, which were recognized especially by the elites of Los Angeles but also, in no small measure, by the young men who were attacked for wearing it." Throughout the investigations that followed, police insisted that zoot suits had become a signifier of gangs and hooliganism, clearly communicating criminal intent. A grand jury disagreed, but the characterization was cemented in the press and the minds of the public. The style, now much more closely associated with crime, didn't die, but continued to evolve and even spread to resistance movements in Europe. By the 1970s, the term "zoot suit" was mostly historical, even as the style's descendants continued to be popular among Mexican Americans in particular.

When swing culture hit a revival in the 1990s, with the release of the movie Swing Kids, a widely seen Gap commercial featuring swing dancers, and albums by nouveau swing bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Cherry Poppin' Daddies, zoot suits had a renewed cultural currency, especially with the popularity of the 1997 song Zoot Suit Riot. Suddenly, they were the most-requested item in vintage clothing stores (which shop keepers couldn't produce - very few 1940s era zoot suits survived). But aside from brief mentions of "sailors" in the song, the brutal historical context of the phrase was stripped, and a "zoot suit riot" came off sounding like a raucous party. So the zoot suit was adopted in a new community of style, mostly with connotations of romance and classy theme parties. No one expected our grandparents, the original contemporaries of the style, to be confused by the switch.

But the question "Why do I wear my pants so low?" and its many answers remain, as we were reminded at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's program The Will to Adorn this summer.

Questions about baggy pants or zoot suits or hoodies can start to have serious, violent consequences - either in the moment or after the fact of violent confrontations. It has been remarkable to see commentary on the potential culpability of clothing in violence arise again in the discussions of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, much as it did in the wake of the zoot suit riots. Robin Givhan put a fine point on this in her Daily Beast piece just a few weeks after the shooting:

Geraldo Rivera was lambasted for suggesting that a hoodie was as culpable in Martin’s death as the shooter. He later apologized for his remarks. But the fact is, we do like to play with our public image—pretending that it doesn’t matter and yet knowing full well that it does. Baggy jeans became popular among young men—whether honor-roll students or delinquents—thanks to all of their negative, subversive connotations. Walking up to the edge of propriety and stepping over the line are all a rite of passage to self-definition.

But if Zimmerman had any accomplice in the shooting, it wasn’t a fashion faux pas, it was fear. And that fear was fueled by ignorance, bravado, misinformation, history, and even popular culture. Fear can make most anything seem threatening: even a black kid walking along with a bottle of iced tea and a package of Skittles. Hoodie or not.

The public outcry that followed the implication by Rivera and others that the hoodie was culpable, and the subsequent "hoodie protests" that saw scores of people marching in hoodies across America and even on the floor of the House, says that we have made at least some progress on this front. It's not just relatively dispassionate academic examinations of the case that say clothing cannot be culpable - the idea is now part of the broader public consciousness.

But we still wonder, "Why do you wear your pants so low?"

Friday, June 14, 2013

Punk, Politics and Power

It's been a week of punk - the look, the idea, and the difference between the two.

I finally had a chance last weekend to get to New York to see the Met's latest show from the Costume Collection, Punk: Chaos to Couture, whose opening gala was endlessly and breathlessly covered by the entertainment press, and the show itself rather less so.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of haute couture designers who have adopted the esthetics of 70's punk as part of their endless churn of revisiting and reinventing the styles of decades gone by, against the designers who are the intellectual descendants of punk, looking for ways to express ideas of disillusionment, deconstruction and protest through clothing.

The visual distinction between the two can be somewhat subtle, but the intellectual one is not. There just isn't all that much to say about a dress with giant gold safety pins by Versace or a belt with locks by Dolce and Gabbana, other than that they found a way to take design elements that were originally intended to be agressive and shocking, and sanitized them just enough to make them beautiful and a bit titillating. It's barely worth talking about, at least not any more than any other wave of high fashion trends. On the other hand, deconstructed and found-object pieces by Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela don't look like anything in the punk film clips projected on the walls, but the ideas they represent are a natural continuation and extension of the ideas Macolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood were trying to convey through original punk culture. This is real clothing with a political purpose.

The show makes no distinction between the two, however. For every slogan t-shirt about climate change ("Save Our Sea"), there is at least one pure cashmere sweater dress that was carefully shredded by trained artisans, and both are treated as equal successors to the fetish wear from the Sex/Seditionaries shop in London. This seems like a missed critical opportunity, a chance to challenge the viewer to consider the consequences of adopting visual symbols without the intention behind them. That kind of cultural literacy is exactly what the Met should be seeking to teach in a show like this. It reminds me of how punks and some of their successors in the 80's wore rosaries as necklaces, as a statement of rebellion against the Catholic church. Now I see young people in my neighborhood wearing them who apparently seem to think they're just nice cross necklaces. A rosary is a devotional item, meant to be held in your hands when in use and sometimes worn at the waist by priests and nuns - it is not now and has never been a necklace, and I'm always astonished when people don't know that. But for the Met, I suppose when the main sponsor of your exhibition wants to sell clothes inspired by it, you can't be too critical of the pretty stuff.

Speaking of deliberate challenges to religious symbolism, HBO released a new documentary on a much more recent case of iconoclasm, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. If you somehow missed the story last summer, these young women who are alternately called guerrilla performance artists, a punk band, and political activists, made headlines for an extremely brief but highly forbidden performance of a blasphemous song at the altar of an important cathedral in Moscow. The doc is largely the story of their trial.

Here again we can talk about their style of dress as the inheritance, not the imitation, of punk. They're well known for their DIY balaclavas, dresses, and tights all in very bright colors. DIY is punk for sure, but hot pink isn't, at least on the surface. But Pussy Riot's clothes are chosen for specific political impact: from what they wear, we know with certainty from a great distance that they are women, and for the performance in the cathedral, their arms were exposed. This became a factor in the trial - not just that they entered a space they weren't supposed to enter and said words they weren't supposed to say, but that they did it with bare flesh exposed. That exposure was specifically cited as part of what offended the victims in the trial. The clothing was part of the political message, and that's totally punk.

Whether you wear fur or vegan leather, bare arms, turtlenecks or hijabs, my advice to you in politics is always to dress with intention.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tie your scarf like this

Senator Kay Hagan discussed the sexual assault problem in the military on the Senate floor last week. She made good use of a scarf:

This outfit would certainly work without the scarf, but it's so much better with it. The key here, as it is in many cases, is that the scarf is not tied to tightly or too carefully. It's draped asymmetrically around her neck and not tied in a firm knot. Tucking it in (a little bit) to her jacket helps hold it in place.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Classic leather

The House approved the Working Families Flexibility Act on May 8. For a press conference the day before, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wore a leather jacket:

A leather jacket can send many different messages, depending on the style. Sarah Palin made it tough-but-feminine, Rosa DeLauro made it quirky.

In this example, Rep. McMorris Rodgers goes for an updated classic. The blazer style with buttons (as opposed to a motorcycle style with a lot of zippers) sends a preppy message, and the rich brown color is much softer than black but not as conspicuous as pink or red.

If you try this look, remember: simple shoes and a soft layer underneath.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The number one question Hillary's pollsters need to ask

It's spring in an odd-numbered year, a quiet moment in national electoral politics. Political junkies pay too much attention to special elections, and then write about what they mean, and what they don't mean, and how we shouldn't draw any conclusions from them anyway.

It's also a moment when issue groups, taking the long view of electoral politics (at least in comparison to individual candidate campaigns) begin to set the stage for the following year and the next Administration. The big news on that front this month was the Madam President initiative launched by Emily's List. It's meant to be a full-throttle push for "any" woman president, but everyone knows that in 2016 that really means Hillary Clinton.

When she runs (and I believe she will run) she will certainly have a few things to learn from the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Much fanfare has been given to the Obama use of technology and micro-targeting techniques, but it may be several decades before analysts fully unpack the dynamics of those campaigns. One book attempting to do so is The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It's an extremely well-researched deep dive into the context and mechanics of how the Obama campaigns leveraged computer technology, statistics and polling to win the day. The overused but apt comparison is Moneyball for politics. Secretary Clinton's staff will absorb these techniques and build upon them for sure.

But here's where I think it gets interesting for women: statistical models that make predictions of voting behavior based on demographic and consumer information require past behavior to create the algorithms. Whenever you have a "first" candidate, the predictive power of the model is automatically weaker. Issenberg notes that the Obama campaign in 2008 made specific changes to its polling practices and resulting predictive models to avoid what is known as the Bradley Effect, where a voter will tell a pollster s/he will vote for a minority candidate (or is undecided) when in fact the voter ends up voting for the white candidate because of race. The candidate can appear ahead in the polls but still come up short at the polling place.

As a strategy, the Obama campaign didn't seek to change the minds of these voters. Instead, they simply wanted to exclude them from the get-out-the-vote efforts, which were the heart of the campaign's strategy. Identifying these voters turned out to be remarkably simple. According to Issenberg, the pollsters began to ask, "Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American president?" It turned out that most of the time, behavior attributed to "the neighbors" was really the voter's own, even if they couldn't admit it.

The numbers on likelihood to vote for a woman are surely too astonishing right now: 90% say they would, and 72% say they believe it's likely a woman will win in 2016. Could it be that simple to straighten this out? Is all we need to ask, "Would your neighbors vote for a woman president?" to get a clearer picture?

I promise this is not a test, but would your neighbors vote for a woman president? Would they vote for Hillary?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Purple power

What would you wear to debate a man who is nationally known for a dramatic extramarital affair? Elizabeth Colbert Busch chose purple:

There is a really effective but subtle effect going on here: the color is feminine (no man in politics would wear a purple blazer), the cut is demure (the white blouse layered underneath makes it very modest), but at the same time it is tailored and that makes it just tough enough. Nothing about her femininity could be mistaken for weakness. It's a line that Gov. Nicki Haley also walks with success in the same state, South Carolina.

This special election is Tuesday, May 7.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Bras, Spacesuits, and "Mission Accomplished"

One of these things is not like the other, right?

Not so fast. Ten year's after George W. Bush wore a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, it's a particularly interesting time to read Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux. The form and function of the spacesuits American astronauts wore on the moon have more to do with politics, women, and fashion than you might think.

Unpacking the space suit. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

In what was probably the most significant intersection of the fashion industry and the military-industrial complex ever, the contract to build the spacesuits for NASA's Apollo missions that ultimately put a man on the moon went to the International Latex Corporation (ILC), the parent of Playtex. Although the ILC division making the spacesuits and the bra company Playtex ultimately split into separate businesses, de Monchaux explains that "until 1966, pipes of liquid latex ran to the dipping room [for spacesuit production] from the same tanks supplying girdle and bra assembly lines." This wasn't a coincidence, and it isn't an instance of space technology trickling down to the general public. In fact, it's the reverse. The first pressurized flight suits had their origins with companies that started out taking advantage of the advent of circular knitting machines in the 1930s to produce girdles and men's compression garments. (We may write about "men's shapewear" like it's a new phenomenon, but it's not.) The entry of the United States into World War II shifted production to high altitude flight suits for military pilots instead. At the same time, early latex technology at Playtex shifted from children's underwear and sheets to inflatable rafts for the military, and the firm's founder shifted his advertising budget to paid newspaper editorials in support of the Roosevelt Administration. But it was John F. Kennedy's vision that would take this fashion-military connection to a whole new level.

Gemini VIII astronauts. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

Kennedy's public commitment to putting a man on the moon was as much about image as it was about technological achievement. The race was on, literally, to accomplish every facet of that mission, including competition among multiple firms for the privilege of suiting up the men in space. And they were all men, with military backgrounds. While the decision to limit the astronaut corps to military pilots was initially made in an effort to protect classified military technology, it was conveyed to the public as being motivated by the superior physiological capacity of elite military pilots. In fact, the entire purpose of a spacesuit is to meet the finite human ability to withstand altitude and extend it, not to require some superior category of person. It was almost different: a NASA subcontractor, Dr. Richard Lovelace, performed a series of performance tests on women for readiness in space, finding equal ability and stamina to withstand altitude. He passed 13 women by 1961, but Vice President Johnson nixed the idea. Regardless of actual ability, women didn't fit the Cold War image of strength that the entire NASA acceleration was intended to convey.

So how did a company that started life making garments primarily for women and children end up making highly technical spacesuits for men? Superior performance, but it was hard won. The image of a "space man" had begun forming decades before, and its futuristic elements were well known - a space suit was smooth, modular, and shiny. There were some technical advantages to these features with respect to pressurization, and many of the prototype suits produced by ILC's competitors had a smooth, sturdy, impenetrable look. The problem, ironically, was space. Space capsules and lunar modules left the astronauts very little room to maneuver, yet they had to be able to perform complex tasks related to flight, and ultimately extricate themselves from the spacecraft out into space and on to the moon. Have you ever worn a Halloween costume that started out as a cardboard box? And then tried to get in and out of a small car while wearing it? Not easy. Now imagine trying that in space.

Apollo 9 astronauts. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

The ILC suit, by contrast, was made of 21 soft textile layers, handcrafted on specially modified sewing machines by master seamstresses originally trained in the high-precision sewing of bras and other garments. Not only were these suits far more easily maneuvered, they were more comfortable, incorporating a layer of girdle lining fabric between the astronaut's skin and the rubberized layers above it. But superior functionality was not entirely enough to win the contract - image was important too. At one point, ILC submitted to NASA along with its prototype suits a short film of two of their engineers playing football, with one of them wearing the spacesuit. This iconic image of American masculinity said more than any technical specifications on durability, comfort, and mobility could convey. ILC won the contract, and they still make space suits today.

So what does this have to do with politics? John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, served 24 years in the United State Senate.

John Glenn entering Friendship 7 in a test facility. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

The image of flight suits and space suits are associated with superior physical and technical ability expressly by design. The American public was told over and over for a decade that these military men wearing strange, rarefied garments were the best of the best, as close to elite beings as we could find to send into space. The suit became a powerful visual shorthand for excellence. It would be 20 years before a woman publicly joined that club.
First class of female astronauts, 1979. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

When President George W. Bush appeared before a national audience wearing a flight suit to declare "Mission Accomplished," what did it mean? I expect we'll see a lot of interesting analysis this week in hindsight, but at the time the visual message was quite clearly expressed in the media: strength, vigor, leadership, and sex appeal. He had the equipment to fly as high as man can go.

For women, the potential of these images is just beginning. This term we saw two female veterans elected to Congress: Tammy Duckworth and Tulsi Gabbard. As a double-amputee and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, we've already become accustomed to associating Duckworth's image with military service. But it remains to be seen whether in this era of roadside bombs and women in combat whether it's our perception of women or of military service that will change. Commercial spaceflight could make the spacesuit part of anyone's wardrobe for the right price, which might say "luxury" but it doesn't say "elite." The days of the high flying leader might be over, and that might be ok.

This post is the first in a new series examining historical, sociological, psychological and artistic influences on the effects of image in politics, in preparation for my first book.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Margaret Thatcher became a style role model

Don't get me wrong. For all the photo essays reviewing Margaret Thatcher's style this week, no one would ever mistake her for a fashion plate. But she was the first female elected leader of a major Western country, and that made her a role model just by virtue of her existence.

 "There is a nonsense about intelligent women not being beautiful. There is no genetic link between brains and beauty. Most women are far more intelligent than people give them credit for."

Want to know what a woman in power looks like? Margaret Thatcher was among the first very prominent examples:

Like some American leaders we know, she was asked by the press about her style and beauty habits. It was inane, but that's not to say that we can't learn something from her:

  1. Devise a go-to outfit that works for you. It should be comfortable, professional, easy to assemble, and endlessly repeatable without being cartoonish.
  2. Same goes for your handbag.
  3. Take your makeup off every night, and not with soap if you can avoid it.
And....that's pretty much it. Easier said than done? I can help!