[Hillary Clinton was] dissected by Post fashion critic Robin Givhan for showing cleavage: "It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative -- aesthetically speaking -- environment of Congress." Givhan contrasted Clinton's decolletage with the more abundant display by Jacqui Smith, the new British home secretary, and her complaint seemed to be that Clinton was showing too little, too unassertively.Marcus is clear that cleavage distracts viewers into sexual thinking and that a politician giving a serious speech should not reveal it. On that firm foundation, she builds the argument that Clinton bumbled. It was mistake. A miscalculation from a woman who is continually called calculating? A very wealthy woman who must have people helping her dress? I think women -- unless they are inept or don't care what people think -- know how much of their breasts are showing! The suggestion that Hillary Clinton of all people did not know is beyond absurd.
Might I suggest that sometimes a V-neck top is only a V-neck top? As a person of cleavage, I'd guess that Clinton's low-cut shirt simply reflected a few centimeters of sartorial miscalculation, not a deliberate fashion statement.
Breasts may be an advantage in certain settings; the Senate floor isn't one of them. If you're giving a speech on higher education, as Clinton was, you don't want Ted Stevens thinking about -- and you certainly don't want to think about Ted Stevens thinking about -- your cleavage.
So let's go back to Marcus's firm foundation -- that cleavage distracts viewers into sexual thinking and that a politician giving a serious speech should not reveal it -- and build something else. Hillary Clinton deliberately crossed a well-understood line, because she'd calculated that it was in her interest to do so. As Marcus notes, Clinton had just received criticism from Elizabeth Edwards for being insufficiently womanly. Hillary wanted to prod us -- subtly, with a small and deniable amount of cleavage -- to think of her as more feminine.
Now let's examine the issue raised by Givhan that the problem was showing too little cleavage. Here's how Givhan's column ends:
Not so long ago, Jacqui Smith, the new British home secretary, spoke before the House of Commons showing far more cleavage than Clinton. If Clinton's was a teasing display, then Smith's was a full-fledged come-on. But somehow it wasn't as unnerving. Perhaps that's because Smith's cleavage seemed to be presented so forthrightly. Smith's fitted jacket and her dramatic necklace combined to draw the eye directly to her bosom. There they were . . . all part of a bold, confident style package.So both Marcus and Givhan find fault. One sees mistake, and the other sees tentativeness. I see a deliberate, controlled gesture that was exactly what she wanted to do, what she thought would be advantageous. Why must a fashion expression -- or a political expression -- be forthright? Givhan uses words like "teasing" and "surreptitious," but I'm thinking: subtle, deniable, diplomatic.
With Clinton, there was the sense that you were catching a surreptitious glimpse at something private. You were intruding -- being a voyeur. Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn't necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means that she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent and undeniable, that they will not be overshadowed.
To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style. Any hint of ambivalence makes everyone uncomfortable. And in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever.
But I do love Givhan's idea that the most advanced woman would be so confident about her image as a competent professional that she'd forthrightly use clothing to express her sexuality. If she does this in a profession setting though, she will be surrounded by men in suits who have no way to present themselves more sexily. What's the male equivalent of the Jacqui Smith style? Can Joe Biden wear a codpiece?
Women have much more freedom than men do. Along with this benefit of more freedom comes more room for personal expression. We can adjust what we wear to express as little as possible. A female politician can wear a dark "Dress For Success" suit if she wants, and then, like the men, she's not saying much. But if she does more, we shouldn't say oh, that's nothing, as Marcus would like. We should talk about it!