Why do woman in politics face such scrutiny over their hair and clothes?

Democratic presidential candidate and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clintons longer hair was cut as she ascended the political ladder. Helen Rumbelow examines the politics of power dressing. 

In the satirical TV series Veep, the female politician played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets serious about becoming the first female president. 

So she cuts her hair off. Even the short style she had before, she explains, was “too sexy ... people didn’t take me seriously enough as a result”.

For women, the Samson parable plays in reverse. 

Line up the most powerful female politicians in the world — Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Christine Lagarde, Nicola Sturgeon and Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president — and you see a collection of women whose longer hair had to be ruthlessly cut as they ascended. 

The theme has even been noted and the style given a name: the “pob”, the political bob.

Meanwhile first ladies, such as Samantha Cameron, Miriam González or Michelle Obama have busy high profile lives but are allowed long, swishy hair. 

First ladies, such as Samantha Cameron, Miriam González or Michelle Obama have busy high profile lives but are ‘allowed’ long, swishy hair.
First ladies, such as Samantha Cameron, Miriam González or Michelle Obama have busy high profile lives but are ‘allowed’ long, swishy hair.

For a leadership role the only conclusion is this: long hair looks feminine in a world where power still looks masculine.

Louis-Dreyfus said that the Veep storyline was inspired by the intense scrutiny placed on Hillary Clinton’s hair: “Female politicians get a lot of crap for their looks. Hair, for some reason, is a really big deal.”

When Cassius Dio, the third-century Roman historian, described political leaders he didn’t think to mention their hair. But for Boudicca, the British warrior queen, he made a big thing of her “great mass of the tawniest hair falling to her hips”. 

As Robb Young writes in his book Power Dressing, a history of female politicians’ sartorial choices, “the novelty of a female political leader was too tantalising” for Cassius Dio to pass without detailed comment on her appearance. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in the TV series Veep. She gets serious about becoming the first female president, so she cuts her hair off– a scene inspired by Hillary Clinton. Picture: HBO Enterprises
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in the TV series Veep. She gets serious about becoming the first female president, so she cuts her hair off– a scene inspired by Hillary Clinton. Picture: HBO Enterprises

This tradition reaches through the ages to the newspaper fashion spreads on female cabinet ministers, as if their walk down Downing Street were a catwalk that deserved more scrutiny than their policies.

Ah, Clinton. Never has one scalp borne the weight of so much debate. 

As the author Michelle Goldberg wrote in an essay on Clinton’s hair, she is a symbol of “public opprobrium that awaits any professional woman who doesn’t get her hair right”. 

Clinton is in reality totally uninterested in her hair. She once said that when she was a teenager and the other girls on sleepovers started “doing styles” on each other, she would fall asleep.

But she was interested in voters. As Clinton’s team desperately took her look from her — rather longer — first lady hair to alice bands to big waves to scrunchies, the hostility only increased.

Her ever-changing hair was interpreted as inauthentic. 

“After all,” went one American newspaper commentary, “you wouldn’t want the Statue of Liberty changing her hemline every other week.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May. 'Politics is still a man’s world,” says historian and author Charlotte Fiell.Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May. "Politics is still a man’s world,” says historian and author Charlotte Fiell. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

For a man to look powerful there is one default: short, the equivalent of him slipping into a business suit each morning. For women it’s not that easy. 

“It’s a sort of lady tax,” writes Goldberg, “and Clinton has been paying and paying it.”

Her hair has now reacted to the glare by crawling up into her follicles: as short and nondescript as it can be without the shock jocks accusing her of being a lesbian. 

Clinton’s memoir of her time as secretary of state was called Hard Choices, but she joked in a speech that perhaps it should have been named: The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 countries and it’s still all about the hair.

With some pleasing irony, her opponent Donald Trump is now suffering from hair-related criticism, but with a difference. 

“You know a lot of people have said a lot of things about my hair over the years,” said Clinton with the air of a rather nonvain woman who has been subjected to repeated alice-band-related focus groups. 

“I do kind of know what Donald is going through.”

Why do woman in politics face such scrutiny over their hair and clothes?

Trump’s pile of yellow thatch is symbolic of its owner: ridiculous, overinflated but above all attention seeking. Clinton travels with her hairstylist Isabelle Goetz. But the aim now is the anti-Trump. It’s meant to be a non-style style. 

Goetz told New York magazine: “I want to make sure her hair is never an issue.”

No surprise that even Bill Clinton began his speech this week urging America to vote for Hillary with a loving assessment of her lack of femininity. 

“Thick hair, big glasses, wore no make-up” is how he described his first impression of Hillary. Bill said how much this drab frump “exuded strength”. 

His take-home message? Sexless, physically unalluring woman equals competent leader. Unromantic, for sure, but effective. 

Confusingly, Bill then said of Hillary, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. 

Yet his whole pitch — and Hillary’s campaign strategy — is to ask voters to please judge this woman by her staid, reliable, only minimally feminine cover.

Why do woman in politics face such scrutiny over their hair and clothes?

According to Young, in Power Dressing, Hillary Clinton’s “mannish makeover” is typical of women striving for the top job.

“Clinton’s approach to power dressing” could be “traced back 3,500 years to the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, who is believed to be the first woman to secure the title of pharaoh,” writes Young. 

Egyptian queens dressed like ultra-feminine noblewomen: indeed, the long hair of women such as the Duchess of Cambridge is a powerful signifier of wealth and leisure. 

Luxurious tresses are a “crowning glory”. 

Such an indulgence would play badly for politicians. They can’t be accused of investing too much in their hair.

But Hatshepsut wanted to be a pharaoh. So she cross-dressed as a man, the Egyptian version of the “pant suit” that dates from the 1980s when women were entering boardrooms in larger numbers. It’s no coincidence that most pob wearers lived through that era. 

Angela Merkel has remained loyal to her 1980s power dressing trouser suits and matching hair ever since.

Why do woman in politics face such scrutiny over their hair and clothes?

Hatshepsut’s “entitlement to rule was underscored by her masculine attire”, writes Young. 

She even wore the same false beards that were worn by male pharaohs. This is probably a hair choice too far for most modern female politicians.

Yet what of women such as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo? They both have hair skimming dangerously close to their shoulders. They are the exception. 

The journalist Mona Chalabi wrote a very funny analysis for the online data journalism magazine FiveThirtyEight. 

Chalabi found a 1978 self-help guide for the first generation of women entering the workplace, called The Woman’s Dress For Success Book. 

One of the main rules of the book were that hair should be either “shoulder-length, no longer”, or “short not masculine” (now aka the pob). 

Either “curly” or “long” styles were forbidden.

Chalabi then applied the test to the current Forbes magazine 50 most powerful women in business list: “Only eight women broke the long hair rule,” Chalabi wrote.

The 1978 rule remains the same in the 21st century, the only difference being that now people are embarrassed to spell it out. 

Then Chalabi delves into the scientific literature to find that long hair really did signify weakness in social psychology experiments.

On men, a beard subconsciously signals a lack of competence, studies have shown. 

While for women, short hair ramps up people’s impression of their “forcefulness”. 

Hairiness for males or females is unaspirational, as every hippy knows.

I wonder if that will ever change, especially in 2016, a year of powerful women. 

I speak to Charlotte Fiell, the design historian and author of Hairstyles: Ancient to Present.

“Whether you like it or not, politics is still a man’s world,” says Fiell. 

“That makes it difficult for women. They need to be taken seriously, but if they choose a conventionally feminine hairstyle, that will look wrong. 

"This helmet of hair is the male equivalent of the suit. It is also very controlled.”

Masculinity still means seriousness? 

“Absolutely.”


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