The Politics of Style: Can Women Wear Their Stilettos and Be Taken Seriously Too?

Remember the movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith? She played the secretary who received a once in lifetime opportunity to fill her bosses “stilettos” and become the power player at the office. Griffith’s character transformed from the big hair, long-nailed, tight clothing wearing secretary to CEO before our eyes with the right haircut and the quintessential power suit.   Eighty’s movies like Working Girl, Baby Boom, and Mr. Mom paid homage to the struggle working women had with remaining feminine while being taken seriously and the difficulty in maintaining this delicate balance.

Unfortunately, the working woman vs. style themes didn’t stay in the 80’s with shoulder pads and perms—they’ve made their way into 21st Century culture as well.

In Legally Blonde when Reese Witherspoon’s character was headed to Harvard Law she changed her entire look to fit into her serious surroundings.  She donned glasses, pulled her hair into a ponytail and wore muted colors.  In the Devil Wear’s Prada it was the reverse—Anne Hathaway’s character wasn’t taken seriously until she started taking her fashion (and herself) seriously as well.  She said “what difference does it make what I look like?” these days, a lot.

Movies aren’t the only place you find the battle between smarts and style.  When Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for President in 2008 there were countless articles about her pantsuits and hairstyle.  Her pants suits were no accident of course; she wanted to move from the image of Hillary the FLOTUS to Hillary the President.  Then you had Sarah Palin whose six figure makeover captured headlines as well as her flirtatious winks.  With the help of a stylist she was transformed from small town governor to potential Vice President (although it would take more than a flat iron and some pumps to make that leap) and played up her feminine wiles in contrast to McCain’s uptight stodginess.  And regardless of the outcome for President in 2008, the “Hockey Mom” technique worked and resonated with millions of women.

The notion that serious women can’t be stylish is a fallacy.  So, why has society continued to perpetuate the lie?  For decades Western society has turned up its noses at countries that force women into ensembles that cover them from head to toe—but the same can also be said about the aforementioned power suit.  Both were designed to suppress femininity and deny women their full expression of self.

Thankfully, there are two women we have to thank for Washington’s recent style evolution, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden.  These two women have single handedly reversed the assumption that women can’t be taken seriously if they are chic.   While both women have teamed up on the Joining Forces initiative which supports military families (an extremely serious endeavor) neither of them feel the need to suppress their style in order to convey their message.

Through the trials of our foremothers whom had to bear the reality of the Mad Men era and scrimp and scrape their way to the top I can’t help but wonder—if we’re still having the “great suit and hair debate” in the 21st Century with regard to the feminine mystique versus the Manolo “have we really come a long way baby”?

Tune into Politini this Thursday (and every Thursday from 8-9pm EST) to continue the style vs. smarts conversation and much, much, more!