There was cleavage on display last week on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
She was talking on the Senate floor about the burdensome cost of higher education. She was wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top. The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.
It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative - aesthetically speaking - environment of Congress. After all, it wasn't until the early '90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor. It was even more surprising to note that it was coming from Clinton, someone who has been so publicly ambivalent about style, image and the burdens of both.
The last time Clinton wore anything that was remotely sexy in a public setting surely must have been more than a decade ago, during Bill Clinton's first term in office, when she was photographed wearing a black Donna Karan gown that revealed her shoulders. It was one of Karan's "cold-shoulder" dresses, inspired, Karan once noted, because a woman's shoulders remain sensuous and appealing regardless of her age.
Feminine, not sexy
As first lady, Clinton wore clothes that were feminine and stately. But sexiness was not part of the image. Her second inaugural gown was by Oscar de la Renta. The original version of the gold lace dress had cap sleeves and a wide jewel neckline. Clinton altered it so that it had long sleeves and a high, almost Victorian collar.
When she appeared on the cover of the December 1998 issue of Vogue, just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had peaked, she wore another de la Renta gown, this one with a boat neck and long sleeves. She looked glamorous, regal and defiant. But one was not even tempted to mention the s-word.
By the time Clinton launched her first Senate campaign, she had found a desexualized uniform: a black pantsuit. Not a fitted, provocative suit, merely an understated, flattering one. Clothes were off the table. End of discussion.
But as she has embarked on her presidential campaign, she has given up the uniform for a wide array of suits and jackets, in everything from dull khaki to canary yellow to sofa florals to the coral mandarin collar jacket she wore at the CNN debate Monday night, flanked by a line of black and charcoal gray contenders.
At ease, Mrs. Clinton
The cleavage, however, is an exceptional kind of flourish. After all, it's not a matter of what she's wearing but rather what's being revealed. It's tempting to say the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!
Not long ago, Jacqui Smith, the new British home secretary, spoke before the House of Commons showing far more cleavage than Clinton. If Clinton's was a teasing display, then Smith's was a full-fledged come-on. But somehow it wasn't as unnerving. Perhaps that's because Smith's cleavage was presented so forthrightly, a fitted jacket and dramatic necklace combining to draw the eye directly to her bosom. There they were . . . all part of a bold, confident style package.
With Clinton, there was the sense that you were catching a surreptitious glimpse at something private. You were intruding, being a voyeur. Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn't necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent and undeniable, they will not be overshadowed.
To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style. Any hint of ambivalence makes everyone uncomfortable. And in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever.