In Political Animals, the USA Network’s miniseries that uses the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton as a template for a fictionalized saga of power, adultery, and familial bonds, Sigourney Weaver plays a first lady and failed presidential candidate who now serves as Secretary of State in her former rival’s administration. In her professional life, Weaver’s Elaine Barrish swaggers through her day secure in her intellect, diplomatic savvy, and acute ability to detect bullshit even before vice presidents, ambassadors, and reporters ever manage to utter “Madame Secretary.” Her private life, with a philandering ex-president ex-husband and a drug-addicted son, is tattered, providing her character with compelling flaws and serving as lusty subtext for her political aspirations.
In the show’s premiere, as viewers were just being introduced to Barrish, she is dressing for a family dinner that will be attended by her ex-husband. This strong and capable woman is fretful about what to wear for a dinner freighted with emotion. Barrish pointedly selects from the back of her closet—with a bit of guidance from her gay son—a gilded slip of an evening gown, one she is pleasantly surprised to find still fits. Later that evening, her appearance is duly complimented by her ex.
In Political Animals, clothes are not merely costuming; they are expressions of character motivation.
Barrish represents an idealized version of the powerful Washington woman, one whose brilliance shines brightly and whose limitless ascent is blocked only by selfish, undisciplined, and misogynistic men. This hyperbole is helped along by Barrish’s perfectly exaggerated wardrobe, most of which, including the gold dress, is designed by the veteran costumer Ann Roth. Barrish’s style exudes prim authority as it awkwardly wrangles overt femininity and sexuality.
Trying to portray female political power poses a particular challenge for Hollywood as the visual language of female authority has always been predicated on sexual electricity emanating from a woman in a form-fitting business suit. But that’s not how power plays out in Washington. The capital city has its share of dowdiness, but contemporary players have mastered a style that is discrete, confident, feminine, and pragmatic. It isn’t electrifying, but it works. (Michelle Obama may have changed the style rules for first ladies, but female presidential candidates are not lining up to buy Lanvin and Azzedine Alaia.)
Barrish eschews minimalist pantsuits and a palette of Giorgio Armani gray. Instead, she wears conservative skirts in shades of lilac with high waist bands that grip her midsection in an emphatic, stubborn—dutiful—display of female vigor.
Barrish’s clothes are exquisitely ambivalent, with their eye-catching corset waistlines, pin-tucked shoulders, and glinting evening fabrics. Barrish is tempted by fashion, but expresses indifference—except in matters of the heart. Her fashion refusal leaves her awkwardly, but precisely, attired for politics. She reaches for power but worries about how her ambition will be perceived. So she strives for power suits but chooses the odd detail—that puffy shoulder—to suggest sweet femininity.
She likes being called attractive and enjoys the flirtatious gesture. She is acutely aware when her physique is being admired—she practically holds her breath to zip up those waistbands—but complains that a man would not be subject to such a lingering gaze.
The Washington landscape is populated by myriad young women who aspire to be Barrish. They dress for work in their straight skirts and tight button-down oxford shirts, their little black Ann Taylor suits, and their Nine West platform pumps. They strive to exude authority without looking androgynous, aiming to be feminine without looking girly, wanting to be admired but also respected.
Dressing professionally in Washington is not complicated. But as Roth demonstrates through hemlines and color palettes, women might be comfortable with their rise to power, but they remain ill at ease with how it looks.