Last Friday, several kind Broadsheet readers alerted us to the prominently featured Washington Post piece on Rep. Nancy Pelosi's fashion choices, earnestly titled "Muted Tones of Quiet Authority: A Look Suited to the Speaker." When we've just witnessed a huge turnover in both chambers of Congress and Pelosi is presumed to be the first-ever female speaker of the House, they wondered, why are Pelosi's clothes dominating the Post home page? Working women's blog the Anti 9-to-5 Guide was perplexed too, asking, "Is anyone scrutinizing Robert Gates' couture?"
These are fair questions. As the New York Times acknowledged back in May, Pelosi is "subjected to the speculation and analysis about her hair, makeup and clothes that any woman positioned for such a big job often must endure." And it's not just her duds. Last Thursday, Post columnist David Broder paid Pelosi a backhanded compliment: "Her debut as leader of a congressional majority was pitch-perfect, calm, confident and blessedly free of the screeching tone of some of her stump speeches," he wrote. Similarly, on Wednesday Media Matters flagged "Hardball" host Chris Matthews' assertion that female politicos do themselves a disservice when they speak emphatically, because "it can grate on some men when they listen to it -- fingernails on a blackboard." Matthews went on to ask how Pelosi will negotiate with President Bush without screaming or "becoming grating." As has been widely observed, current House speaker Dennis Hastert has never had much wardrobe analysis, plastic-surgery speculation or tone-of-voice criticism to contend with.
Still, Friday's piece was penned by popular Post staff writer Robin Givhan -- the only fashion writer who has received a Pulitzer for her efforts, as far as we know -- who's known for assessing the style choices of both male and female politicos. (Her skewering of Dick Cheney's casual attire at an Auschwitz memorial was especially spot-on.) Whether you enjoy Givhan's columns probably depends on whether you find Beltway fashion a worthy topic, but she's generally an equal-opportunity fashion critic. And Friday's piece did include some astute observations; Givhan notes that at a press conference on Wednesday, Pelosi bucked political convention by not pinning "a flag, an eagle or any other booming statement of patriotism" to her lapel. Pelosi may be in for an unusual amount of frivolous and even misogynistic commentary, but Givhan isn't necessarily marginalizing Pelosi by commenting on her outfits. She's just sticking to her beat.
But her beat isn't without its biases. Givhan does implicitly contrast Pelosi's attire with Hastert's, quipping, "The appearance of the current speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert, will go unmentioned here except to say that there is nothing chic or particularly polished about it." That's certainly a dig at the current speaker, but Givhan's lack of interest in Hastert's shlubby presentation underscores the fact that guys in suits are still the Washington norm; Pelosi stands out just by being a woman, and even her jewelry choice is subject to scrutiny.
Givhan reports that Pelosi went to a Wednesday press conference in Armani, and parses the choice as a matter of gender politics: "An Armani suit, for a woman, is a tool for playing with the boys without pretending to be one," she writes. This description is a little facile -- few female politicos actually dress in drag -- but she's right that Pelosi will probably have to perform the sartorial gymnastics of looking enough like "the boys" to seem authoritative while remaining feminine enough to reassure traditionalists. Givhan is matter-of-fact about this requirement, noting that "Pelosi's attire suggests that she understands that appearance matters in politics. And while that might not be fair, that is part of the cost of participating." What Givhan doesn't mention is that the cost is still higher for women than men.