Last week there was Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Mission scientist who announced the comet landing triumph while wearing a button-down shirt featuring half-naked, gun-toting women in bondage gear. Then there was Karl Stefanovic, the Australian anchorman who wore the same suit on air for a year, hoping somebody would notice. Nobody did until this week, when he announced it as a political statement.
"We're not used to talking about the way that men dress or questioning the appropriateness of it," notes Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon, and in different ways these two men have shaken that up: After being widely rebuked on the internet, Taylor issued a tearful apology; Stefanovic spawned dozens of stories of praise.
They also, however, have helped show what exactly is required for male dress to make headlines—and the bar is very, very high.
Yet you don't strictly have to be announcing some historic achievement in a profession that's already perceived to be hostile to women, or even proclaim you've be wearing the same outfit every day to get media attention for your fashion choices as a man.
For Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, it was a matter of baby steps.
Ford announcing he smoked crack in an NFL tie wasn't enough to do it. He also had to don a football pattern while explaining his profanity-laced response to allegations he'd sexually harassed a female colleague, and wear a smiley-face patterned tie to City Council meetings in the midst of the scandal to boot.
Even the president of the United States, arguably the most gleefully criticized man in America, gets off relatively easy where fashion is concerned. In a Vanity Fair interview several years ago, Barack Obama was praised, not criticized, for wearing only two colors of suits. As he explained to Michael Lewis at the time, it was a highly strategic leadership maneuver. "You need to focus your decision-making energy," Obama said. "You need to routinize yourself." A headline in the Guardian later dubbed this shortcut his "secret weapon."
Obama did manage to come in for some criticism earlier this year when he wore an ill-fitting tan suit to a press conference, and also for his notorious mom jeans. But even for him, fashion critiques are a relatively rare affair.
Contrast this to the withering wardrobe attacks directed at Hillary Clinton, who, long before she ran for president in 2008, was all but synonymous with the highly practical, if somewhat boxy, pantsuit. Clinton was never praised for her pragmatism or seen as a decisive leader cutting down on meaningless deliberations. While she did eventually manage to reclaim her pantsuits as a symbol of her ceaseless professionalism, it took upwards of 10 years of making jokes about it, as well as the grassroots support of some talented media professionals.
She's far from the only impressive woman to find herself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. As I wrote in a recent column on the standards of dress for women, the expectations can seem impossible at times. "Pay too much attention to what you wear, and you become 'a White House counsel known for her shoes.' Not enough, and you're the new Fed pick who 'needs some new threads.' Wear something womanly, and you're sexualized. Wear a pantsuit, and you're trying to be a man."
There are whole publications that exist to assess what women wear, to say nothing of the beauty and fashion complexes that benefit from convincing women they need to appear differently than they are. That's why sites like Vagenda, which seeks to normalize some of the worst headlines on women's appearance by satirizing them, are necessary.
So what, exactly, would it would take for a guy to be criticized for his wardrobe in real time? Maybe if he came clean about smoking crack while wearing a shirt featuring women in sexy bondage gear as he announced something historic as president of the United States? Perhaps then public scrutiny would be on a par.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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