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Does it matter what female politicians wear?

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Does it matter what female politicians wear?


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When Donald Trump declared in the first debate of the US election that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have “a presidential look” many people wondered whether what he actually meant was: “Hillary doesn’t look like a US president because she is not a man in a suit”.

And even in the many countries where female leaders have broken decades of male dominance, the debate about their “look” continues. Alongside comment on Hillary’s “pantsuits”, we find pages of opinion about Theresa May’s shoes, or Angela Merkel’s blazers. But does what these women wear really matter?

Personal stylist Annabel Hodin says that it does, but that the same goes for men too: “every public figure should look their best all the time”. This is not merely the view of someone who makes money from making people look good, but the findings of a growing body of research.

‘Abstract cognitive processing’

In 2014, a study by Michael Kraus and Wendy Berry found that men dressed in formal business clothes did significantly better in negotiations than men dressed casually. In 2015 Abraham Rutchick found that formal clothing enhanced abstract cognitive processing, one of the characteristics of a leader.

These studies give new depth to the expression “looking the part”: “you have to dress like the tribe you aspire to belong to,” Hodin says. People wearing suits do successful business because they conform to our idea of a business person. The principle is the same for politicians: “when they get it right you won’t notice what they’re wearing,” says Hodin.

Of course, getting it right is not easy for women. The male political dress code has evolved over centuries, ensuring that everyone knows what a male politician should wear. By contrast, the attire of the female politician has yet to be codified: should she try to dress like her male counterparts by donning a “pantsuit”, or should she risk kitten heels? The combination of a relative lack of precedent and a wide range of possibilities increases the potential for women to slip up.

What difference does getting it wrong make to electoral outcomes? A study by Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes compared the responses of 961 participants to print reports about two hypothetical candidates, identical apart from their gender. “We found that approval for men drops just as much as for women if their appearance is portrayed in an unflattering way in the media,” explains Lawless.

Many argue, however, that the media draws public attention to the appearance of female politicians more often than it does to male politicians, thereby increasing the opportunities we are given to disapprove of what the women are wearing.

In this, the media may just be feeding a greater public interest in the appearance of female politicians than that of their male counterparts. In the last six months, the terms “Angela Merkel clothing” were searched on Google 2.1 times more often than “François Hollande clothing”. “Donald Trump clothing” was searched 1.3 times more often than “Hillary Clinton clothing”, although this compares to general searches for Trump 2.1 times higher than for Clinton.

Easier for men

So, what a female politician wears will have an impact on her overall approval ratings, particularly if she is perceived to have got it wrong. Voter opinion is no kinder to men than women in the event of a wardrobe malfunction, although better-established dress codes for men may make easier for them to avoid mistakes in the first place, and the media may give those mistakes less coverage.

In other words, in a close race, kitten heels might prove decisive.

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