Here’s what I think about the so-called Hillary Clinton cleavage controversy: She looked fabulous. Unfortunately, thanks to the vigilance and stridency of Clinton’s legions of feminist supporters in the media, who rose to collectively denounce a Washington Post fashion writer who dared to notice that Clinton had displayed an inch of cleavage while speaking on the Senate floor, we are unlikely ever again to see her looking so forthrightly feminine, so classily sexy, so zaftigly maternal -- so downright attractive.
Even the most Clinton-smitten of political liberals admit that the New York senator is often fashion-challenged. During her husband’s presidency, she was known for her garish-hued suits featuring doorknob-size buttons and less-than-flattering hemlines.
Now running for the nation’s highest office, she’s switched to garish-hued boxy jackets over sleek but essentially shapeless black pants. For example, check out the salmon-orange jacket with stiff mandarin collar that she wore for the July 23 Democratic presidential debate. “I don’t know about that jacket,” said the Democratic presidential field’s style maven, John Edwards, he of the $400 haircut.
So, it was a refreshing break to see Clinton attired in clothes that actually looked good on her when she was captured by C-SPAN2 on the Senate floor July 18. She has, ahem, put on a few pounds since she ran for the Senate in 2000, and as all gorgeous women of a certain weight know, from Cecilia Bartoli to Mo’Nique, the name of the game is to concentrate the viewer’s attention on your above-the-waist assets, which, thanks to that nourishing layer of subcutaneous you-know-what, typically include lustrous skin and luxuriant hair. Clinton has both, and she also has a bust line that larger women don’t have to pay a plastic surgeon to possess.
Everything that Clinton wore that day on the Senate floor -- the soft rose-pink jacket, simple and tasteful, that highlighted her pearlescent complexion; the matching pink necklace; and the black shirt with a slight V-neck that revealed a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative” (to quote Post writer Robin Givhan) -- brought out her female best.
My own theory is that Clinton was indulging in a visual retort to Elizabeth Edwards (those Edwardses!), who was quoted in a July 17 article in Salon magazine saying that Clinton, obliged to prove her toughness as a potential world leader, wouldn’t be as effective as her husband on women’s issues. Bill Clinton’s response to Edwards -- “I don’t think [Hillary’s] trying to be a man” -- was captured on a now-famous YouTube video.
Givhan’s comparison of Hillary Clinton’s decolletage to “catching a man with his fly unzipped” wasn’t an analogy I would have used, but Givhan incurred the wrath of political feminists because her article violated this basic double standard of the women’s movement: It’s fine to aver, a la feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan,that women are the kinder, gentler, softer sex -- and also to advertise one’s softer sexuality by declining to dress in the covered-up uniform of men. But if you dare call people’s attention to that fact, as Givhan did, you’re a sexist pig.
The reliably neurasthenic New York Times columnist Judith Warner got the ball of outrage rolling: “I always thought that middle age afforded some kind of protection from prying eyes and personal remarks.”
Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman divulged more details than one would care to know about her own sartorial peculiarities: “And what to make of my lime-colored Crocs with their peek-a-boo holes? Do they express a certain post-feminist funkiness? Or do they expose a feminine (if chipped) pedicure?”
An irate woman left a voice-mail message with Post ombudsman Deborah Howell demanding that the newspaper “do more stories on the private parts of male candidates.”
And the over-the-top finale came from Clinton advisor Ann Lewis’ use of Givhan’s article in a fundraising letter designed to stir up the wrath and dollars of Clinton’s supporters: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It’s insulting to our daughters -- and our sons -- who are constantly pressured by the media to grow up too fast.”
So, I guess it’s back to mandarin collars for Clinton. That’s too bad, because she would do better to take a leaf from the book of the powerful women in history who boldly used every weapon in their arsenals to hold their own in a world dominated by men: not only their brilliant minds but also their looks and their sexuality. They include Elizabeth I, who decked herself with every pearl that could be fished out of the Indian Ocean, and Cleopatra, who seduced two Roman rulers.
As for cleavage, Catherine the Great displayed five times as much bon point as did Clinton. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria wore dresses cut so low that it’s hard to figure out how they stayed up -- even after bearing her 16 children. Her husband, Francis I, was originally the emperor, but after a while, Maria Theresa just took over and ran the Habsburg domains herself. Sounds like a good role model for Hillary Clinton.
Charlotte Allen is an editor at Beliefnet and the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”