(Clothes are text too, guys – everything is text.)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, doting grandmother, American Badass, made history this week as she was officially, truly, irrevocably nominated for President. Say what you will about HRC as a candidate—she’s certainly not without problems—but the outfit she chose to wear, the set of clothing that will be archived in American historical texts for probably ever, was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Hillary is a self-declared pantsuit aficionado, and she stayed true to form as she glided onto the stage Thursday night. But this suit stood out: every inch of fabric was a soft, snowy white. Set against the strangely industrialist décor of the Convention, dark and glinting, Hillary positively glowed. The costuming choice (because politics is really just high-stakes theatre) was a bold one, and not without strategy.
As Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times, white is a significant color in the context of women’s history. White, along with purple and gold, was one of the three official colors of the American National Woman’s Party. An early mission statement of the movement explained: “White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose.”
White was also Geraldine Ferraro’s color of choice in 1984 when she became the first-ever female Vice Presidential nominee. In a not-too-flashy way (depending on how flashy you think an entirely white pantsuit might be), Hillary honored and continued the tradition of women claiming their space in this country.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that was all this suit said? But white is a waaaay more fraught color than that.
White is, to be specific, an extremely gendered color—even if we set aside several women’s political movements adopting it as their pigment of choice. White is strongly associated with purity, and by extension, especially for women, desirability. Young Southern teens wear white at their debutante balls; the girls in Jane Austen–era England wore white at their coming-out parties—two events that historically exist to signify that this girl is available for marriage, and shall we start the bidding at 300 heads of cattle?
And, of course, white is the dominant (sometimes only) hue in wedding dress boutiques—again, to convey the perfection and purity of the blushing bride. It is in fact such a special color to these types of events that it is taboo (and bad luck? I have no idea) for women to wear white to any wedding other than their own. “Excuse you,” seems to be the general sentiment, “can’t you see there is only one uncomplicated, sexless, intangibly desirable being at this event? Now get in the back of the buffet line.”
In art, white is a youthful color, an empty color full of potential, a lightness that adorns angels, young nymphet beauties, and—yes—Jesus. White is, by and large, used to communicate that the subject is pure, simple, clean, and if the subject is a woman, that she is unsullied by the carnal perversions to which the hysterical mind is otherwise so prone.
Which is why it was so gutsy to take this color, put it on one of the more complicated political figures of her generation, and give it pants.
Hillary is aware that she comes with baggage; she even addressed it in her acceptance speech. She knows that she’s been gathering dust and grime from decades of media coverage, and that the American public is scrutinizing this grime in higher definition than ever. And so she made her entrance in Philadelphia wearing a blank canvas, a softly glowing promise of better things.
It reminded me, perversely, of the closing scene in Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen, when Cate Blanchett washes herself anew, powders herself to perfect snowiness, and declares, “I am married to England.”
It would of course be reductionist and frankly sexist to assert that Hillary achieved the same effect with her outfit choice, that we should at any point equate her long and prosperous career to the institution of marriage. But her choice of white did communicate some kind of pledge in its own right. A pledge to serve faithfully, perhaps; to continue giving her life and soul to this country that she intends to lead, if it should have her.
P.S. Okay but if we were to go with the marriage metaphor, she dressed Bill and Timothy to suit the occasion perfectly.