Pop Culture

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It's fashion week in New York City, but this year, political junkies are being treated to their own runway. Hillary Clinton's pant suits, Cindy McCain's bling, Michelle Obama's bright dresses have all been subjects of media scrutiny over the past months. And now, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, she of the peep-toe pumps and retro glasses, is also giving the political fashionista something new to talk about.

So, in the spirit of fashion and politics, we're speaking with Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Teri Agins. Also joining us is Marjorie Margolies. She's a former congresswoman and now the president of Women's Campaign International. It's an organization that helps women prepare for leadership and politics and advocacy. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. TERI AGINS (Fashion Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Great to be here.

Ms. MARJORIE MARGOLIES (President, Women's Campaign International): Nice being here.

MARTIN: Marjorie Margolies, I'm going to start with you. You're a former member of Congress. This year, you were a delegate to Hillary Clinton. This is purely subjective, but I'm just wondering if, in your opinion, do you think we've paid more or heard more about the attire of women this year than we have in the past?

Ms. MARGOLIES: I actually don't. I think it's just part of the game. Women are viewed in a very different way with regard to their dress than men are. The entrance of Sarah Palin, of course, makes the stakes a little bit higher, and we've always looked at what first ladies to be or first ladies wear.

MARTIN: Do you think it's sexist on its face, though, to notice what these women are wearing?

Ms. MARGOLIES: Oh, kind of. It's the way it always will be. We have much more interesting things to put on as carbon-based homo sapiens, and we just have to be careful with regard to what we wear and make sure that it's appropriate.

MARTIN: Teri Agins, you've been in this business a long time. Have you noticed that any of these women that we've talked about, Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, have they had a style impact over the course of the year? Is this something that is talked about in fashion circles?

Ms. AGINS: Oh, yeah. Well, not necessarily on Seventh Avenue, but certainly among consumers. Remember that, you know, fashion is an integral part of pop culture, I mean, even more so than when Nancy Reagan was first lady, and we certainly paid attention to all those Adolfo suits and James Galanos' gowns that she wore.

But now, everybody is interested in fashion. You probably remember, Michel, when there was that whole hubbub about wearing a red tie during the debates, and people are really interested in clothes. And in this particular year, you have all these women who are very interested in fashion.

MARTIN: Is that bad?

Ms. MARGOLIES: I think about what just happened to Sarah Palin, or if you go into beauty parlors in many places in this country, they're asking to have the up dos. I mean, it has an effect. Women look at what other women are doing and wearing and...

Ms. AGINS: Yeah. This is almost like a kind of a red carpet. I mean, it's the same type of referendum they get that.

MARTIN: Is that bad?

Ms. AGINS: No. I don't think it's bad. I mean, it's just the way it is.

Ms. MARGOLIES: It just is.

Ms. AGINS: Yes, it's the way it is.

Ms. MARGOLIES: Actually, women in the United States have it much easier than women in other parts of the world, in other parts of the world.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell me about that. Yeah. Tell more about that.

Ms. MARGOLIES: Well, I'm the head of an organization, Women's Campaign International. And we travel around the world, and we work with women. We train them to be advocates and run for office.

And one of the things that we talk about is how extremely important it is to be culturally sensitive and wear things that are appropriate in appropriate settings. Many of the women whom we've gotten elected, especially in African countries, when they go back to their villages, can't wear the kind of fancy western clothes they often wear in the cities.

And they have to be very careful. Many of the women we've worked with have to be covered or partially covered or make sure that their arms are covered. And it's back to that, what I was saying earlier, it has to be appropriate and not offensive.

MARTIN: Are there rules for women in this country that you teach women candidates that they have to adhere to, or is the main rule, just don't distract?

Ms. MARGOLIES: Right. I don't think that there are rules. I think we're lucky enough not to have them, but most people remember what you wear and your tone over what you say. So, if you make sure that those two things, those two latter things are fairly neutral, at least more people perhaps will be listening to what you say, and that's what you want, after all.

Ms. AGINS: Yeah, I mean, just think of, remember when Hillary was wearing the headbands, and she kept changing her hair, and that became a big issue. So, I agree, I think that, you know, it's very important because, you know, during the debates, I mean, people talk about what Hillary wore at every single debate, and she had to look, you know, very fresh faced. Her makeup had to be flawless.

Ms. MARGOLIES: And she did actually, didn't she? She's great.

Ms. AGINS: She looked great. She looks fantastic, and that kind of neutralized any, you know, but if she had not had it together, that would have been, you know, her message would have gotten completely lost.

Ms. MARGOLIES: That would have been the headline, unfortunately.

Ms. AGINS: Exactly. Yeah, that's the way it is.

MARTIN: It seemed to me, in corporate attire, when women first started moving into - the middle class women anyway, moving into the paid labor force in large numbers, the big thing was to de-feminize as much as possible, you know, the big shoulder pads and the classic suits...

Ms. AGINS: The floppy bow ties.

MARTIN: The floppy bow ties. And that seems to have kind of gone by the way side. So do you feel that women in political life...

Ms. AGINS: RIP.

MARTIN: Yeah, have more latitude now. And I also wanted to ask about men. Do you feel that - are we paying more attention to what men are wearing, or do they just still get a pass? Marjorie?

Ms. MARGOLIES: I think they get a pass for the most part. We kind of loosened up in many places. There are no ties and jackets anymore. I think women really are the ones who still have the burden of getting up in the morning and putting something on that is, for whatever reason, responsible.

Ms. AGINS: Yeah. Well, the other good thing that I think has happened, because I wrote about this in the Journal, we watched the dress codes start to loosen up on Wall Street, and you saw women going sleeveless and, you know, wearing camisoles and things that they never wore. As they moved up in the workplace, it became a lot more confident and, you know, they decided to, like, express themselves in fashion. And I think it's good because I think the more that people...

Ms. MARGOLIES: It is healthy.

Ms. AGINS: Yeah, people get used to it, they're desensitized, and that's why we can kind of enjoy what, you know, Cindy and Michelle are wearing. And, you know, that doesn't take away from them as being, you know, the strong women or anything. It's just that, you know, they're part of the, you know, they're participating in the fashion industry, and let me tell you, Seventh Avenue is adoring this.

MARTIN: But, Teri, I wanted to ask if you had just any fashion tip for each of the four ladies that we've been talking about, Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, and...

Ms. AGINS: I would tell them to wear color. I mean, I think that the color really just - really just good on TV. It doesn't makes you look really great. So, I would say, you know...

Ms. MARGOLIES: Color but simple.

Ms. AGINS: Yeah , color and a good neckline. I mean, I think a neckline is really good having, you know, a (unintelligible) neckline.

Ms. MARGOLIES: Yeah. That's a better way of putting it, yeah.

Ms. AGINS: And then also, two for them to go on and look feminine.

MARTIN: Marjorie, is there any fashion tip that you have for each of these high-profile ladies that we've talked about?

Ms. MARGOLIES: Well...

MARTIN: We can add Jill Biden to this mix, too.

Ms. MARGOLIES: Oh, she - she really has beautiful taste. It's very clear that the people around them are thinking, what can we put you in that is pretty, that's light. You're not seeing a lot of serious, dark suits. You're seeing a lot of color. Most of them are quite trim, which is lucky. And I do think that it is simple, appropriate, you know, bring back the pearls or something like that and make yourself serious looking but somewhat supportive.

MARTIN: OK. Marjorie Margolies is the president of Women's Campaign International. It's an organization that helps advise women running for office and leadership positions around the world. She's a former member of congress from Pennsylvania, and she joined us from Philadelphia. Teri Agins reports on the business of fashion for the Wall Street Journal. She joined us from our New York bureau. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. AGINS: Thanks for having us.

Ms. MARGOLIES: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And you both look fabulous.

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