319: Clothing Confusion

I blame the role models. And women’s clothing manufacturers. And the fashion press. And the women in media that I want to shake by the shoulders and say, “It’s not all about the biceps!” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with male role models. And just so you know, this book will always start with the men. The reason for that is that men got there first and when you get there first you get to make the rules. Just like Picasso knew the rules of painting before he started breaking them, you need to know the rules of professional dress, as established by white men.

“Rules” is probably not the right word, because it implies a clear list and demarcated consequences for infractions. Instead, let’s use the word “norms.” “Norms” simply means “How we do things around here.” In general, the leaders set and show the norms for how we do things around here. These norms are followed by those around them, and just like mold spreading through a loaf of bread, the norms spread to the entire loaf, or in our case, the entire business. And just like rules, there are consequences for breaking them, it’s just sneakier because nobody writes them down. You have to figure them out.

Broadly, norms are set by public figures. Considering that the median age for an S&P 500 CEO is 55, these norm-setters were born between 1955 and 1965. At the top of the heap for setting standards for professional dress was the President of the United States. Less at the top of the heap, but much more prevalent and showing up in living rooms across America every night, was the network news anchor.

At the time that our current crop of major league CEOs were growing up, there were three television stations, NBC, CBS, and ABC. Let’s take this train of role models and ride it through history, looking at who boys and girls saw on their televisions.

1950s – 1970s Newscasters (leaving out ABC because until you get to Peter Jennings, they were irrelevant):

Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite:


Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon:

Looking at the male role models, we note that they are all white and they are all dressed pretty much the same. In addition, if you dropped them into today’s conservatively dressed workspace, they would not look out of place. That is interesting, isn’t it? Men could be walking around in an outfit worn 60 years ago and fit right in. That makes fitting in pretty easy, doesn’t it? (Talking about clothes, not skin tone.)

Looking at the female role models, we note—Oh, look! No women! Sigh.

For an alternative, let’s look at spouses of presidents.

Maime Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon:

What do we notice this time? Again, all white. Are they dressed for business? Do they look current, could you drop them in today’s workplace and would they fit the norms? Lady Bird comes the closest, but you might assume she’s the Chief Marketing Officer, not the CEO. Jackie looks like she’s ready for a business dinner (she probably was), and Pat looks like the President of the PTA.  As for Maime sitting demurely on the couch with her hands passively in her lap, no.

What we learn from this comparison is that we could mistake all of the men but none of the women for a modern-day CEO.

1970s – 1990s Newscasters:

John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Connie Chung:


Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton:

What do we notice? With the exception of Connie Chung who lasted two brief years, all white men. What about their clothes? Still pretty consistent, right down to white or light blue shirts and ties that are colored in some combination of red and blue. Yes, lapels and ties got a little wider and suits got a little lighter in the 70s (easiest to see on John Chancellor), but in the scheme of things, not dramatically different. The men could change clothes with each other and you wouldn’t notice a difference. But if Connie took on their clothes or any one of them took on hers, you would. Not saying women need to look like men, just saying that men have a uniform that makes it very easy for them to know what to wear to look like those in power.

Not related to the clothes but to career longevity, we can also learn that it’s better to be a male newscaster than a president. While presidents hold their chair for a maximum of eight years and Connie was in hers for only two, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings both sat in their chairs for 22 years, and Dan Rather beat them both at 24 years. For boys and girls growing up in the 1970s through 1990s, the trusted person who told them what was happening in the world was a white man, and he was wearing a dark suit, light shirt, and a respectable tie.

What was the only female anchor on the evening news wearing, for that brief flash of two years? (Actually some of these photos were probably from periods when Connie was not anchor but was a special commentator, judging by the shoulder pads-that-can-barely-get-through-the-door indicator from the 1980s):

How do Connie’s clothes stand up against the men’s? Does she look powerful? Smart? In charge? Let’s put all the network anchors together for easier comparison.

Of all Connie’s outfits, the khaki-colored suit comes closest, but even it isn’t quite there (although the photo is lovely). But do you know why?

To be more precise in our evaluation of clothing, we need a better understanding of the messages we send with our clothing. We need to understand color, we need to understand cloth, we need to understand the function of a suit and tie, and we even need to understand which item of clothing of professional business dress is used to send sexual messages. And to do that, we need to turn to an expert. That expert is Alison Lurie. When we know what Alison knows, we will never ever look at clothes the same way. And when we make our clothing choices, we will know exactly what we are saying.

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