A story on Roll Call Thursday night cast aspersions on Janet Yellen, President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Reserve, for, of all things, having an insufficiently varied wardrobe. The consensus on Twitter was that such an article would never have been written about a man.
Actually it’s worse than that.
Those stories have been written about men, and they’re unfailingly praised for being decisive leaders who don’t waste brain power on frivolous things like fashion. Take, for example, Obama, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs.
Obama famously told Vanity Fair that he wears only blue or gray suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Michael Lewis. “You need to routinize yourself.” The headlines praised him for decluttering his mind and cutting down on “nonvital” choices. ” Barack Obama’s Secret Weapon? Routine,” read a headline in The Guardian.
Zuckerberg, who wore the same Facebook T-shirt almost every day for years was lauded for saving time in the morning. “He’s extremely busy, and picking clothes takes time out of his day that could be spent doing other things,” notes a post in The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs’s decision to wear a black turtleneck and jeans every day had him being praised as a “fashion visionary.” Jobs’s uniform, observed one writer, “has heretofore seemed less like a sophisticated sartorial choice than a savvy excercise in personal branding, a symbol of ascetic devotion to technology.” Acclaimed designer Ralph Ruccinhas has called it one of the most “wholly original” ideas in modern fashion.
And when Ben Bernanke, Yellen’s predecessor at the Fed, told Time in 2009 that he favored relatively inexpensive threads at Jos A. Bank over designer suits, he was hailed for his pragmatism.
There are hundreds of powerful men on Capitol Hill, and every day they wake up and put on a suit and tie. They all look the same. Day after day after day.
If you are a woman, the closest you can come to wearing a suit and tie is to wear a black dress with a fitted black jacket. That is exactly what Yellen was wearing.
Pay too much attention to what you wear, and you become “a White House counsel known for her shoes.” Not enough, and you’re the new Fed pick who needs some new threads. Wear something womanly, and you’re sexualized. Wear a pantsuit, and you’re trying to be a man. Wear a conservative black dress, and you’re fine. Until you wear it a second time, then you’re a headline or a punchline.
I’m not picking on Roll Call‘s Warren Rojas. I’m picking on the rules of the game, rules that allowed the woman about to control the world’s largest economy to be reduced to a dress.