Hillary Clinton's Style Evolution

Hillary Clinton's pantsuits are not so much an anonymous uniform as a personal declaration of independence


Hillary Clinton in Portsmouth in July. Picture / Melina Mara for The Washington Post

The headband is long gone, and so are the eyeglasses. There are no signs of St. John knit skirts, and the simple black pantsuit has cycled out of regular rotation. Even the scrunchies have been tucked away. Hillary Clinton has transformed.

She has grown from a bespectacled young woman with a mane of long hair into a groundbreaking politician with a layered bob and golden highlights. She looks almost nothing like her younger self. Her style has changed with the culture, and each new haircut or shift in clothing is a reflection of the ways in which her life - and the lives of women in general - have evolved. Clinton is both a product of her time and emblematic of it.

When she entered the public consciousness, Clinton was a young Wellesley student in striped pants with hippie hair. She was the '60s writ large with all of its bold strokes of anti-establishment upheaval. As a newly minted lawyer in the 1970s, she looked as though she had stepped from the pages of John T. Molloy's Dress for Success - the style guide whose influence had many women wearing boxy suits and mumsy blouses. Clinton was a serious young career woman in tinted aviator glasses. Her hair was sculpted into a tight bob and her wide shirt collar spread over a sober dark blazer.

When she took on the role of political spouse beginning in 1979 - first in Arkansas and then on the world stage - her style reflected the scattershot reality of that job. Could she still carry herself like a career woman or should she shift into some stereotypical vision of a homemaker? Was she a political surrogate, a partner in ambition, a what, exactly? She grew her hair to a flirtatious length and framed her face with wispy bangs. But soon she'd trimmed her locks to a more reserved length so that they just grazed her shoulders. She moved on to a sophisticated bob. Sometimes, her hair was blown-out straight and sometimes it was set in curls. Headbands become her trademark, until they weren't.

READ: Bill Clinton's First Gentleman Fashion

Her clothing style ranged, too: shirtwaist cotton dresses, quotidian trouser suits, broad-shouldered designer blazers, formal first lady gowns. She changed her look for the same reasons many women did: sometimes out of boredom, sometimes because her current style just wasn't quite right. She tweaked and morphed so much that folks couldn't stop talking about her clothes and her hair, in part because it seemed as though she couldn't stop thinking about them herself.

She was under a searing spotlight because she was the first lady as well as a failed health-care czar. She was simultaneously East Wing and West Wing. She was wearing the pants - something women didn't even do in the Senate until 1993 - as well as picking out china. Her rocky relationship with fashion reflected the rapidly transforming lives of baby-boomer women. Could they have it all? What precisely did having it all look like? What was Clinton supposed to wear? It wasn't as if the fashion industry - with its romanticized visions of women, power and style - was offering her much guidance.

It did not seem as though Clinton found her way - sartorially speaking - until the high horror of the Monica and Bill affair. In 1998, she became the first first lady to appear on the cover of Vogue. She was photographed in a regal but demure posture, wearing a deep red Oscar de la Renta gown. In hindsight, the portrait reads like a final nod to a life spent settling for reflected power. Soon thereafter, she swore her allegiance to pants. And she ran for the Senate.

She did so in a uniform: a black pantsuit. It was a very East Coast-efficient choice. But it also announced that she was aiming to remove the personal from the equation. She was all business. She was ready to be part of a chorus of senators, and not the star attraction. Those unremarkable black pantsuits were a kind of camouflage.

Today, she continues to wear pantsuits, but they are in bold, look-at-me colors. They are not so much an anonymous uniform as a personal declaration of independence. She jokes about them. "Pantsuit aficionado" - along with "hair icon" - is how she, in part, described herself when she joined Twitter. She owns her look, but even more, she acknowledges the rocky, aggravating, painfully public road to finding it. As it turned out, she - like a lot of women - couldn't have it all, whatever that might have meant. But her clothes suggest that she has come to the realization that what she's got is plenty.

- The Washington Post

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