The Fashion Whip: Politics & Pantyhose

Fashion Whip is a political style column by fashion stylist Lauren Rothman and HuffPost reporter Christina Wilkie inspired by Lauren’s experience at Styleauteur, the firm she founded.

WASHINGTON — When Michelle Obama stepped onto the national stage in the summer of 2008, she did so in bare legs — a bold new look on the political landscape. Shortly after, Sarah Palin’s VP candidacy — much of which she spent sans pantyhose — made hosiery seem practically obsolete on the campaign trail.

What a difference three years can make.

The brief, celebratory atmosphere of Obama’s inauguration gave way to a sustained economic downturn which, coupled with the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, lent a new seriousness to Washington.

All of a sudden, pantyhose are back — on store shelves, on the legs of Republican candidates’ wives, and on K Street. But before we rush to credit a certain young British royal for reviving the trend, it’s worth considering whether they ever really left Washington.

The nation’s capital is one of the last bastions of formal attire in the country. As such, DC has presented a unique challenge for women’s professional wardrobes, and rarely more so than in lean economic times.

So many clients I work with are dressing for a public stage, whether arguing cases before the Supreme Court or campaigning for office. But among my younger clients — the ones senior management might have accused of looking too casually entitled just a few years ago — the question of hosiery comes up a lot. They ask me, “are pantyhose an asset that will help me look competent, a necessity to keep me from looking ridiculous, or a dowdy throwback, like I’m trying too hard to dress like a ‘grown up?'”

Here, understanding the distinction between pantyhose and tights is essential. Pantyhose are sheer, always, regardless of the shade. Tights, on the other hand, are opaque or patterned. In general, tights make an outfit appear more modern, and pantyhose, more traditional. As one congressional staffer put it recently, “Tights are all over the Hill in the winter, on everyone, because we all wear skirts so often. But come summer, the only women in hosiery are staffers who work for southern, Republican senators. Then it’s sheer, nude pantyhose every day.”

Another client of mine, a litigator, recently explained the self-assurance that pantyhose convey to her in Washington courtrooms, telling me, “If I walk into court and the opposing counsel isn’t wearing hose, I already know I’ve won that case.”

While there are no hard and fast rules, there are certainly guidelines that I offer to clients who ask me. Anytime they think they could find themselves on C-SPAN, in a courtroom, or in a meeting with a high-ranking official, I advise them to err on the side of hosiery. If they work in Congress and plan to meet with constituents, the same rule applies.

For women who work in politics, the best plan during this election cycle may be to take cues from the field of candidates and their spouses. Are you more of a “Callista Gingrich” than a “Michelle Obama,” more conservative than fashion forward?

If that’s the case, you know what to do. We’ll see you in the hosiery aisle.