When a reporter jokingly told Amal Clooney that she was expected to wear Versace to a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights on Friday, she made a quick retort.
Clooney was at the court to challenge the appeal of a Turkish politician who denied that Turkey carried out a genocide against Armenians starting in 1915. Most historians, however, agree that some 1.5 million of Turkey’s Armenians were either killed or forced out of the country.
The wife of the Hollywood heartthrob has drawn attention to the genocide which is still vehemently contested by Turkey even though a full century ago.
A quick listen to her argument before the judges makes the case for how absurd it was to ask her — an international human rights attorney — about her fashion preferences.
“There are images of beheadings, burnt bodies, railway cars of Armenians being herded into the desert. There are descriptions of the Euphrates River filled with blood,” she said.
But even as Clooney contends with such weighty issues, the questions keep coming back to the superficial stuff. And that’s not because of her envious place as the wife of one George Clooney.
Women have been questioned on the utterly beside-the-point topic of their appearances even as they, quite literally, change the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has topped Forbes’ list of the most powerful women in the world no less than eight times and yet, the news outlet still had the gall to call her out on her “frumpy style.”
And the media can’t seem to get over the fact that she’s worn the same tunic (intermittently, of course) for 18 years.
German fashion designer Karl Lagerferld said, “Everything is wrong,” about her look, by which he meant: “Too long pants, too tight jackets, awful colors.”
But doing everything right seems to be a problem, too.
That’s something that a former foreign minister from Pakistan found out when she accessorized with oversized Roberto Cavalli sunglasses and a pricey — and hard to get — Hermes Birkin bag.
“Hina Rabbani Khar story confirms belief women are great foreign ministers & reporting on female politicians is terrible,” Stephanie Carvin, a London-based lecturer in international relations tweeted at the time.
That’s something that former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would likely agree with. She famously slammed a pair of interviewers from Kyrgyztan in 2010 when they asked her, what they had cautioned, would be a silly question.
Here’s the exchange:
MODERATOR 1: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
SECRETARY CLINTON: What designers of clothes?
MODERATOR 1: Yes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Would you ever ask a man that question?
MODERATOR 1: Probably not. Probably not.
Male political leaders do, on occasion, get called out for their fashion choices — but it seems to be more rare — and perhaps more worthy of comment. One recent example is Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a suit that spelled his name in thin pinstripes when he hosted President Barack Obama in India last week, or when a senior official from Ghana unabashedly donned his wife’s coat on a trip to Germany.
What women wear, however, seems to come up even if what they wear is rather banal — like say a pantsuit or required legal attire. But why?
Doug Sweet, media relations director for McGill, has one possible explanation. He wrote back in 2008, “Male politicians, by donning the uniform and largely taking away the issue of fashion judgments, can then be evaluated more according to their performance and positions. Women, who have yet to escape the fashion-judgment issue, continue to be evaluated on those choices as well as on their platforms (not the shoes) and comportment.”
But maybe it’s something more insidious than that — a persistent tendency to judge women — first and foremost — for their appearances instead of their skills or accomplishments.
As ThinkProgress recently reported, debate heated up in another field just this week when the bestselling author was described in an obituary as “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.”
That didn’t keep her from selling 30 million books, certainly, but female politician’s looks can be more damning.
Last year, study by the Women’s Media Center found that no matter what is said about a female candidate’s appearance — positive or negative — it has a negative impact on what voters think of her.
How does that play out for international human rights lawyers working to foster accountability for a genocide that took place a century ago? Let’s just say it might be for the best that Amal Clooney has to stick to the requisite black robes and white collars.
Especially because, as she said in her statement in court last week, “The stakes could not be higher for the Armenian people.”