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04.13.10

Are Power Pantsuits the Solution?

Hillary Clinton may cut loose with a brilliant blue pantsuit on the road, but at home she blends in with subdued tones. The Daily Beast's new style columnist, Kate Betts, on why the secretary can't mix style with substance like Michelle Obama.

Hillary Clinton may cut loose with a brilliant blue pantsuit on the road, but at home she blends in with subdued tones. The Daily Beast’s new style columnist, Kate Betts, on why the secretary can’t mix style with substance like Michelle Obama. Plus, view our gallery.

Something about the photo on The New York Times’ front page Monday reminds me of that famous Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” In the ad from the 1970s, the model jumps toward the camera in a man’s double-breasted suit. She’s also wearing a tie. The Times photo shows Secretary of State Hillary Clinton marching out of the West Wing, flanking President Obama and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, heading to Blair House to talk to foreign leaders about nuclear arms control as part of the president’s two-day Nuclear Security Summit. What’s remarkable about the picture is that all three are dressed identically, in dark pantsuits. The only immediately obvious difference in their appearance is Hillary’s footwear—a pair of those distinctly dowdy pumps that are indigenous to Washington sidewalks.

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Hillary’s Pantsuits

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I know it’s considered chauvinistic to focus on what powerful women are wearing instead of what they’re saying, but we live in a visual culture, so get over it. And Hillary, for all her past shenanigans with headbands and hairdos, has finally established her style—if, as August Wilson once said, style is sticking to the same idea from beginning to end. Leave the avant-garde labels to our fearless first lady. Our secretary of state has found her uniform in an endless rack of industrial-strength pantsuits she special-orders from Oscar de la Renta. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she even jokingly referred to her followers as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit and told Conan O’Brien to quit making lame jokes about her pantsuits. They serve a practical purpose, not a fashionable one. She wears them to fit in, not to stand out, and that’s what bugs me. Why can’t she stand out? Why do women, when they’re sitting at the same table or in the same corner office as the big boys, always have to blend in?

Every once in a while a risk-taker will appear: a woman with a brain who isn’t afraid to flaunt a fabulous sense of style. At the recent Women in the World Conference, I was impressed by the African economist Dambisa Moyo, not just for her remarks on why development aid does more harm than good in Africa but for her discussing this topic up there on stage in a ruffled Lanvin minidress and 7-inch platform stilettos. You go, girl! And certainly nobody has done a more thorough job of demonstrating the unlikely union of style and substance in the White House than Michelle Obama.

I, along with many women I know, wish Hillary would just lose the pantsuit and wear something fabulous like an Oscar de la Renta pouf dress or a beautifully draped Lanvin suit. But that’s not even remotely possible. Not because of her body type, or her powerful image, or even the practical reason that if she wore a skirt, she wouldn’t be able to walk as fast as the president, who in The New York Times photo looks as if he is taking very long strides. The pantsuit is a generational benchmark, not just for Hillary, but for all professional women. Let’s not forget that for women on Wall Street and in Washington, pants are a relatively new option. As Madeleine Albright recently reminded me, we’ve come a long way, baby: It wasn’t until the 1990s that women were allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor. No matter how many glass ceilings they shatter, many powerful female CEOs and CFOs on Wall Street still feel they cannot risk their hard-earned status by fooling around with fashion. My friend Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Lebenthal & Co., recently told me about switching outfits between meetings because she couldn’t wear something frivolous—a gray flannel jacket with beading on the collar and cuffs—to a meeting with the treasurer of a big bank. She changed into a Ralph Lauren pinstriped pantsuit because she couldn’t risk looking inappropriate. It was important that she look less “flashy” at lunch so that she would be taken seriously.

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Hillary Clinton leaves after meeting with Brazilian Senate President Jose Sarney at the National Congress in Brasilia. (Adriano Machado, AFP / Getty Images) (ADRIANO MACHADO)

When she’s on the road, Hillary often wears bright colors that set her apart in a sea of dark suits like a beacon of confidence. In early March, on a trip to Brazil, she wore a brilliant cobalt blue pantsuit, and that same week in Costa Rica she wore an emerald green jacket. Even at the State Department, when she met with the prime minister of Greece, she wore bright pink. But when she hangs out with the West Wing machers, she always seems to dress to blend in. Would she be taken less seriously if she showed up for the nuke talks in her hot pink jacket? Is the fear that wearing something noticeably feminine and remarkable would sideline her even more in the AfPak discussions?

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Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou arrive at the State Department. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) (© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Perhaps a hot pink jacket would be a liability on the runway of foreign relations, but I think the secretary of state has something to learn from the savvy first lady, who played to the visual nature of our culture right away and grabbed the public’s attention with her brightly colored cardigans and floral print dresses. If Nancy Pelosi can pull off a more feminine look on Capitol Hill with colorful suits and pretty pearl necklaces, why can’t the secretary of state? We are not, after all, asking for Lady Gaga-style looks here—although kudos to her for dressing up pure ambition in entertaining clothes rather than threatening ones.

Hillary and Nancy’s generation fought hard for their place at Washington’s power table, so hard that they instinctively continue to fight. To break through those glass ceilings they had to play by the men’s rules and dress like men. But with each successive generation, the dress code gets a little looser. Already powerful women like Michelle Obama have redefined the notion of what is appropriate. And thanks to Michelle, the next generation—the one who buys everything online and lives a truly transparent life, sharing their every fashion whim on sites like Polyvore.com and Twitter—will wear whatever they want in the Oval Office.

Hillary must have already gotten the memo about her unremarkable mannish suit: The next day, she wore the hot pink jacket to meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Korean War Memorial—proving she can take bigger style strides, too.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Kate Betts is a contributing editor at TIME magazine and until this year was also the editor of TIME Style & Design, a special supplement to the magazine. Previously, Betts was the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and the fashion news director of Vogue. She is the author of the book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style , due out February 2011.