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In France, It Really Matters What Politicians Wear. Even Men.

François Hollande is just the country's latest fashion victim

Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images News

Last month, French President François Hollande got new glasses. Like any Parisian worth his salt, he must keep himself au courant by abiding by the sartorial “goût du jour,” as one French journalist explained it. Though his previous glasses were the same make, it took the new black rims for the French public to notice that the glasses were, in fact, designed and manufactured in Denmark. Before long, two proud French glasses-makers had publicly called on Hollande to rethink his choice, citing his opportunity to become, instead, “the ambassador of la lunetterie française.” The president has not, as of yet, heeded their call, and the affair has since been dubbed, in the French media, a “polémique.”

Observers across the Atlantic who read of the situation in last Thursday’s New York Times may have come away with another idea of its social significance. The Times used Hollande's new glasses to examine “the question of sex discrimination when it comes to politics and fashion,” concluding that “these days sartorial politics is an equal opportunity arena,” because accessories are symbolic no matter the gender of their wearer. This would seem like good news on the gender equality front, but what’s missing from the Times’ account is the fact that such “equal opportunity” for sartorial scrutiny is hardly new, especially in France.

Centuries before Hollande’s optical mishap, the French public was aware of, and quite concerned about, its leaders’ sartorial proclivities. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, whose book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, will be published by Yale University Press in the fall, told me that French politicians’ wardrobes have never been exempt from public scrutiny, in part because fashion has historically been such a prominent industry in France. Among the French, she said, there has long been an expectation that leaders should be wearing French-produced goods and a sense that no one in his right mind would even want to wear anything else. 

Napoleon himself took great pride in wearing French-produced fabrics, and his great care for his wardrobe has been well-documented. According to The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire: 1789-1815, the “survival and success” of Lyon’s textile industry, which had produced the rich, embroidered silks of his coronation, “became emblematic of Napoleon’s policy toward French industry.” (The “extraordinary pageantry” of the entire ceremony, fashion included, we are assured, “served Napoleon’s goals well.”) 

Jacques-Louis David/Wikipeida
Napoleon's Coronation, 1804

Louis XVI, too, was well aware of the political significance of his dress. He hosted balls whose dress codes were explicitly modeled after the bright, feathered fashions of the popular reign of Henri IV—“a very calculated propaganda move,” Chrisman-Campbell said.  

An eighteenth-century man dressed à la Henri IV

The conscious evocation of collective nostalgia for a happier time may be a recurring theme—the similarity between Hollande’s new frames and those of highly regarded Jacques Chirac, has not gone unnoticed by the French. 

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jacques Chirac

Sartorial symbolism, of course, has mattered just as much for French women. Take Marie-Antoinette, who faced a populace quick to pounce on her perceived foreign loyalties and willing to use her favored fashions as evidence thereof. (It helped, Chrisman-Campbell explained, that the rise of fashion magazines coincided with her coming to the throne.) Rumors of the queen wearing linens from her native Austria were “a matter of public discourse,” Chrisman-Campbell said, and the pre-Revolutionary political climate was so decidedly anti-royal that even when she did wear fabrics imported from French colonies, she faced accusations of sartorial disloyalty. When she adopted the hobbies and clothes of her English friends, this was taken as evidence that the queen of France was a foreigner who did not have the best interests of the French people in mind. 

Marie-Antoinette on horseback; riding horses was considered an English hobby.

Even here in the United States, political figures, many of them male, have faced centuries of scrutiny for their sartorial choices: George Washington made a point of wearing an American-made suit at his first inauguration (for which he was publicly lauded) and Dwight Eisenhower made headlines when he decided to break with tradition and wear a shorter-than-usual hat for his.

Washington's first inauguration.

Despite the myriad evidence that male leaders hardly get a free pass for their looks, the fact remains that female politicians' are more closely dissected. According to Chrisman-Campbell, male politicians, who are expected to wear suits, “have a uniform that women generally do not have access to.” While “it's wonderful for women to have more options,” she says, it also leaves more room for them to make “mistakes,” and generally leaves their appearances open to a greater degree of scrutiny—as, for example, in the case of Hillary Clinton’s hair.  

This leads to what Politico Magazine recently called “The Princess Effect,” arguing that, in the media, political women’s “long trajectories—complicated and unglamorous, less ridden with cinematic hardship than the patient navigation of everyday misogyny—are often swept aside for the ‘it just sort of happened’ narrative of female power.” The piece aptly calls attention to more than just problematic scrutiny of women’s appearances—it offers a litany of instances of representations of women, both visual and verbal, that effectively treat them as “Disney princesses: Vaguely appointed, lavishly decked out in gowns, smiling, packaged and sold.” In a country still trying to come to terms with what it means to have women in positions of power, women’s outfits and their hairdos can, and do, come to symbolize bigger questions about this power. As it is, there are fewer questions about men in power and, therefore, their sartorial choices today may be somewhat less potent than were Napoleon’s. But that doesn’t mean that no one’s paying attention.

The uproar over François Hollande’s glasses, then, does not so much signal progress in our willingness, as a society, to scrutinize sans discrimination. It just reminds us that for better or worse, we are, and always have been, eager to know what our public figures are wearing—and as often as not ready to tell them what’s wrong with it.