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Have Pantsuit, Will Travel | The Nation

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Have Pantsuit, Will Travel

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Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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"Sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits" is how Hillary Clinton put it. And with those simple words, the peculiar misery haunting a certain slice of my entire professional life flashed before my eyes.

First let me set the scene: I got to Denver late after getting up at four in the morning to catch the plane here. My hotel is, as it turns out, not actually in Denver, but in the next suburb over. This means I have to take a shuttle bus and light rail or else a $70 cab ride, while the driver tries to figure out which roads into town haven't been blocked off. Once at the convention center, you still have to stand in line for an hour or so to get through perimeter security, and then you walk for miles and miles on the indoor-outdoor concrete surfaces with which all of Denver is seemingly paved.

What I mean is, that if you've worn the wrong shoes you don't just pop back to your room to change. And if you've worn long pants and a snappy little power jacket with a silk lining that is slicked to your skin in the blistering heat, you don't dare take it off, because you're middle-aged and a little worried about bra straps.

So this is the kind of stuff rattling through my brain when Hillary Clinton spoke those fateful words. I looked at her well-constructed peach pantsuit and the pantsuits of the thousands of her well-heeled contributors on the floor, and thought: the night before, Michele Obama had worn a simple, single-layer sheath dress, appropriate for this weather, and a pair of low-heeled shoes. Elegant, confident and literally cooler. This thought, this contrast, made me stop my busy blogging about unity and the future and women as astronauts. I unbuttoned my jacket, kicked off my shoes underneath the press table. Whew, I said to myself. Hillary Clinton and I are trapped in the clothes of our generation.

I suppose there's nothing like an election to turn the mind to fashion statements. And now that the party is at least nominally united, allow me this little digression upon the little-observed semiotics of what hell it has been for a woman of a certain age to dress for success. To some extent it's not exclusively woman's issue--the citizenry is often disposed to deciphering candidates' positions on serious issues, ranging from the war to the economy, from the esoterica of what they wear. Cowboy-boot politics. Italian-twill twee. Plaid-shirt populism. Lapel-pin patriotism.

This season, however, we have been much consumed with the matter of shoulder-pad feminism, as it was so ungraciously dubbed by pundits. The very term made me cringe, harkening back as it does to my first days out of law school some thirty-odd years ago, when as a result of brand-new affirmative action policies, women entered professional life in something like numbers that mattered.

Its hard to remember how flummoxed everyone was at the prospect of women in boardrooms, women in courtrooms, women in.... power. Garden hats, tea dresses and little white gloves simply weren't up to the task. And what a task it was. Pervasive skepticism at our presence in male geographies had to be countered with the trappings of authority, the semaphores of serious intent, the packaging of no-nonsense. Proving that we were as good as the guys thus ushered in an ugly and exaggerated anti-romanticism: no lace, no flounces, no ruffles, no pleats. No hankies, as though in expectation of copious tears. No loud colors that made you sparkle or shine. No lockets, no heart-shaped objects dangling from delicate silver threads. No heaving bosoms, no bursting bras--indeed, no obvious breasts. Just a uniformly square-cut suit in industrial tones, perhaps a robust rope of heavy gold for a wristwatch. We looked as though Charlotte Gilman's housewife had stepped out of her yellow-wallpapered prison of sentimental virtue and bellied up to the bar.

So. The number-one thing that makes me wince when I look at old photos of myself is the Power Suit. The power suit was the de rigueur uniform for professional women during the 1980s. It had over-compensatory shoulder pads, whose width exceeded those of your average quarterback.

It is no accident that this was also the era of Big Hair--one absolutely had to have a helmet of expansively frazzled locks just to proportionalize those shoulders. "You looked like Mark Maguire," says my son as he flips through the family album, then wisely adds, "but prettier." His confusion is forgivable. In those days, women always looked steroidally bloated, pumped up to the point of near-explosion.

One of Wikipedia's definitions of "power suit" is "a powered exoskeleton," to wit, a machine covering the body to "assist and protect soldiers" or to "aid the survival of people in dangerous situations." That captures exactly my experience in the realm of pin-striped grey and navy blue serge.

The second most despicable item of clothing from that era was the so-called Dressed for Success Bow at the Throat. This was a time, you must recall, when women and men still existed in very separate conceptual realms. In order to transgress the boundary between "women's work" and "men's work," one of the most common recommendations was that women "pass" by trading in the pearls for a tie. Not for a manly-man's tie, God forbid, but rather for a huge, flouncy, floppy, thoroughly "effeminate," and not at all "feminist," version of a bow tie. Said bow was always in red silk, like an Edwardian Christmas caroler, the better to go with the navy blue of the suit. It was like a bad gender-bending joke--us bravely-liberated big-haired shoulder-pad feminists yoked at the throat with the mark of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Does it come as any surprise that such an ensemble might require a crisply starched Peter Pan collar?

Let me pass on to the cruelty of shoes. Heel and toe. Power and pain. There is still no such thing as a women's shoe that conveys comfort and signals power simultaneously. A serious power shoe must lend height. Height means the sadomasochistic punishment of, say, four-inch bootlets in butter-soft suede from Bloomingdales. Despite the hard-won graduate degrees qualifying one as a professional woman of immense rationality, one nevertheless may be seduced by the ability to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with any man who challenges your word. It is vanity that will ensure a nightmarish escarpment of physical regret. For many moons after taking them off--and assuredly by the time you turn 50--you will hobble about at a dangerously forward-pitched slant.

What makes work "back-breaking" for many professional women is not the traditional swinging of shovel and axe but the isometric bewilderment of balancing heavy hair, padded shoulders and overloaded tote-bag against the angled physics of stiletto heels.

And yet I confess: I love stilettos irrationally. They make me think of Andy Warhol's lovely sketches back in the days when he was an illustrator for B. Altman and I. Miller. I associate them with his beautifully inked blotted-line pictures of ice cream cones and pink layer cakes. Stilettos are so feminine yet strong, professional yet sexy, dangerous but in control, cruel but competent. Such good lawyer garb. Such good weapons with which to crack glass ceilings.

Indeed, according to Jack Green's discussion in his fascinating little volume, The Physics Factbook, a stiletto high heel exerts more than fifteen times the pressure exerted by an elephant's foot:

Pressure is defined as force over area. Pressure is directly proportional to the force and inversely proportional to area. This inverse relationship is an important concept when it concerns the immensity of pressure. The significance of the high heel comes into play because it has such a minute area. Due to this fact, the pressure under that high heel is extremely large. If one were to solve the aforementioned problem, the solution is deduced as follows:

This is approximately 40 atmospheric pressures.

If only all this rogue elephantine female power could have found its expression in an aggressively adorned tea hat or a ferociously iron-fisted velvet glove. Instead it had to be the shoe, so relentlessly jack-hammering its liberatory tattoo upwards, into the spine.

And there is no perfect antidote to such suffering. Yes, there's always the frequent if furtive resort to snub-nosed, little-girl flats. Alice-in-Wonderland shoes. Ballerina slippers. Aerosoles with bouncy, innocent, rubber-ball bottoms. Such honest footgear may be gloriously, eye-rollingly more comfortable, but flats do diminish not matter how hard they try. They make you shorter to start with--even if "shorter" means "your actual height." In this, Michele Obama, at nearly six feet, enjoys a distinct avantage. Flats make me, however, feel sedate as a nun, even when they come in leopard print.

Some of this is probably because I associate flat, round-toed shoes with the boring old blood-colored Oxfords and wool knee socks I had to wear from kindergarten through middle school. School shoes. Sensible shoes--back in the day when Twiggy was iconic, an alluringly un-sensible dandelion puff in a Peter Max miniskirt. Twiggy wore Cuban heels! and patent-leather go-go boots! My mother, the breeziest of upbeat matriarchs, dismissed my complaints summarily: "Lace them up. No ones going to remember your shoes a hundred years from now."

How wrong she was. I would be a different, happier, more charitable human being if I had not had to wear those ugly red Oxfords with their unforgiving arch supports. Perhaps today I wouldnt be so easily smitten by shoes with not just elegant spindles for heels but sharply tapered triangles for toes Power points. I've heard that some women actually have plastic surgery to shorten their toes so as be able to squeeze into a set of narrow-nosed Manolo Blahniks. The pathetic thing is, when I walk into a meeting wearing my kick-ass Jimmy Choos, I almost understand why. It's worth the pain! My IQ, my courage, my logic are outstanding!

But still, I wish I'd never worn them.

After Hillary finished speaking, it took me two hours and forty-five minutes to get back to my hotel, polish my posting and file this. I walked miles hunting for a taxi but it was a zoo--a zoo with a shortage of cabs. I went back to the convention center, consulted a transportaion guide, who directed me to take a forty-minute bus ride to the Red Lion Hotel and then get a cab from there. The Red Lion is where the Texas delegation is staying; so I rode with a lively group in gaudy cowboy hats sprinkled with red, white and blue glitter who kept eyeing me with friendly suspicion and asking: "You're not from Texas, are you?" When I confessed that I was from New York, it was like one of those piquante sauce advertisements. "New York City!!" they said, and shook their heads.

I think it must have been my shoes.

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