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We want to see what politicians wear. Is that so wrong?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren sported similar colors at a campaign rally in June. 
Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren sported similar colors at a campaign rally in June. Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren walked onto the stage in Cincinnati with wide grins and windshield-wiper waves, the crowd roaring for their first campaign appearance together.

With Warren's endorsement of Clinton weeks out of the bag, news stories that day in June told of how Warren went after Republican Donald Trump as a "nasty man," how she yelled, "I'm with her, yes, her," referring to Clinton, and how she assured her progressive following that Clinton would be tough on trade abuses and Wall Street greed.

Some stories sneaked in another detail, zooming in on what the women wore. A New York Times reporter started her story with how the politicians appeared in "similarly colored clothes — hues that almost perfectly matched the bold blue" of Clinton's logo.

Cue the stabby cry of "oh no, she didn't." The Times' description, among others, set off social media eye rolls lamenting how a story about two men would not have gone there.

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

I understand the irritation. As a member of this newspaper's politics team, I dig into the nitty-gritty of campaign messaging every day, searching for substance and exaggerations, regardless of wardrobe.

At the same time, I don't totally buy it. I'm a serious journalist with a not-stupid interest in clothing. Had I been covering the rally, I would have included Warren and Clinton's near-matching blue jackets, too. Same goes for Clinton's white power suit the next month at the Democratic National Convention, or the dresses worn by Michelle Obama and Ivanka Trump at their conventions (both outfits dutifully reported by the Times Deal Divas bloggers, of which I am one).

Watching on live television, I wondered if their getups were a deeply coordinated show of unity or an unfortunate case of not knowing what the other person was wearing before mounting the stage.

Baby, I was born this way; I can't help my thoughts. And wanting wardrobes documented does not make me a bad journalist or an antifeminist.

Uh, right? Afraid of going another minute as a passive sexist enabler, I asked experts to tell me if I was wrong

"I think it makes you a sentient human being," said Robin Givhan, Washington Post fashion critic, author and focused observer of both nominees' wardrobes. In 2006, she became the first fashion writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. She has commented on the clothing of everyone from the family of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts to former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose olive parka, hiking boots and knit ski cap clashed loudly at a snowy Auschwitz liberation memorial service. Givhan wrote:

The ceremony at the Nazi death camp was outdoors, so those in attendance, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were wearing dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots. Because it was cold and snowing, they were also wearing gentlemen's hats. In short, they were dressed for the inclement weather as well as the sobriety and dignity of the event.

The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.

Talking with her affirmed my personal opinion: Mere mention of what someone is wearing isn't an automatic sign of a journalist's double standard. What I felt watching the rally also wasn't unique to me, she said. We listen with our eyes, not just our ears, watching for body language, eye contact and messages in appearance.

There's a gray area separating appropriate and poor commentary. You know you've crossed it when someone's look is all you absorbed.

"The more interesting story line is to try and understand why we notice it," Givhan said, "not simply that we did."

Still, academics who study women in politics wished for a different world.

"Treat clothes like sex: out of bounds except when it reveals hypocrisy or lack of fitness for office," said Kristin A. Goss, a Duke University associate professor of public policy and political science. "And since nobody will follow that rule, how about something simpler: If you cover the blue pantsuit, cover the blue tie, too."

Her comment took me back to the Republican primary in February, when PolitiFact colleague Joshua Gillin and I chased down the stores responsible for similar gray pullovers worn by Republicans Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio for a Times snippet. It wasn't front-page news, but it gave readers a sense of how the former mentor-mentee duo continued to make similar choices.

Celebrities on the red carpet face a similar conundrum. They deserve substantive questions (#AskHerMore) (#RIPManiCam), but for many red carpet watchers, the outfit is what they came for. It's not unreasonable to ask who made the expensive confections on Reese Witherspoon or Lupita Nyong'o, gowns tailored as punctuation marks after strong on-screen performances.

The success of a woman in politics should not and does not hinge on day-to-day visual delivery. But Fashion choices creep into coverage, in large part, because most anything women wear is a departure from the staid presidential uniform for men of dark suit, white shirt and red or blue tie.

Women don't have the option to choose neutral clothing or hairstyles, said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of the book You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Describing those choices reveals something about a person. So is it worth mentioning?

"In an ideal world, journalists would just let that temptation pass by and not take it. Because the implication is that appearance is more important for women than substance," Tannen said. "I don't think that's the motivation for it, but I think that's the impact of it."

I told her I agree it's unnecessary for substance-heavy events, like the upcoming debates. But it didn't strike me as offensive as part of routine campaign coverage, when little new is revealed from stop to stop and the point is capturing flavor.

Clinton seems to like pants and hip-hitting jackets. As the creamsicle two-piece suit she wore on a recent campaign stop in St. Petersburg showed, she's also embracing color. Clinton's clothing has to work for her own confidence and comfort, but also look inviting for voters looking at a TV closeup or photograph or sitting in the front row to the cheap seats.

There's no time-tested playbook for what a woman should wear to look presidential. The result is a mix of some calculation and chance, and journalists may not always get it right.

"If you reduce a woman to nothing but her clothes or her appearance, then it is a problem," Givhan said. "But if it's part of a full picture of who that woman is, then I think in many ways it tells us more about the person."

The campaign attire of men needs and deserves more coverage, she added. But that doesn't mean we have to pretend the style of a woman in the nation's eye for 25-odd years isn't noteworthy.

Contact Katie Sanders at Follow @KatieLSanders.

We want to see what politicians wear. Is that so wrong? 08/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 18, 2016 12:34pm]
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