This week, a calm, even conversation between two carefully dressed Republican women, Cassidy Hutchinson and Representative Liz Cheney, made for one of the most explosive and compelling televised events of the decade.
Americans were fascinated as they listened to the testimony about the behavior of President Donald J. Trump on January 6. But we were also visually captivated by the hundred small but critical decisions made in each woman’s style choices. Everything – hair, makeup, jewelry, wardrobe and nail care – seemed to radiate calmness, control and above all neutrality.
The witness’ outfit was a non-event. Ms. Hutchinson, an aide at the Trump White House, wore a fitted white blazer over a black crew-neck top; a small, bejeweled circle pendant on a chain close to her neck; and small earrings. The look was studiously neutral and eschewed any hint of spectacle or flash. Flattering without being “fashion-y”. Mature but not maternal. Because the clothes were supposed to disappear and the cameras were on her face much of the time, the public was largely left to her grooming choices.
She wore her dark hair to the shoulders, blow-dried smooth with a slight twist at the ends. (Perhaps her only “narrative” of nerves was adjusting her hair several times.) She wore minimal visible makeup — what looked like a light bronzer, but no discernible shades of lipstick or eyeshadow. Her manicure was also a completely drab embellishment – an understated pearly white.
Viewers caught a glimpse of this manicure in one of the hearing’s most dramatic moments: when Ms. Hutchinson said he was told that Mr. Trump, furious at being prevented from joining his armed supporters, allegedly jumped at the throat of his Secret Service agent. In explaining this, Ms. Hutchinson offered a discreet pantomime of the action, placing her own hand lightly on her collarbone.
That one moment summed up the astonishing power of Mrs. Hutchinson’s appearance before the House’s select committee: She told a terrifying tale, yet she unleashed her memories in the most reserved, non-threatening, visually calming way imaginable. Her demeanor and gaze were clearly at odds with the details of her testimony—and this disjunction itself, this striking contrast, cast her words into sharp relief and magnified their impact.
Mrs. Hutchinson’s measured demeanor and muted look mirrored that of her interlocutor, Mrs. Cheney, the vice-chairman of the committee. Throughout all the hearings, as disturbing as the revelations were, Ms. Cheney has maintained the same unchanging facial expression, tone of voice and level effect. (Representative Bennie G. Thompson, the committee chair, on the other hand, allows himself moments of irony and even levity.)
She keeps her white blonde hair parted in the side, with light waves that look soft but never fall out of line or even move at all. The effect is tough, imperturbable, an older version of Mrs. Hutchinson’s looks. She kept it with a range of jackets in neutral tones, her crystal blue glasses, pearls and the Capitol Police lapel pin she wears in solidarity with the officers.
That both women chose neutral tones, and such understated, muted, almost nondescript outfits, seems intentional, inviting viewers to focus on the words rather than the looks, and leaves little room for anyone to criticize their choices. Ms Hutchinson, in particular, must have known that her credibility depended on how she would be viewed the first time she stepped into the national spotlight.
Women’s clothing and grooming choices are always more fraught than men’s. We have to make so many more decisions (hair, makeup, jewelry, heel height, pants or skirts) and therefore as many avenues for visual communication as possible – and, of course, wrongcommunication. And especially for young women in the professional world, the daily task of constructing a look that is simultaneously attractive and “serious” can feel like traversing a minefield.
Young women are also a primary target of the ‘beauty culture’ and its vast array of products, techniques and prescriptions. Social media is teeming with thousands of tutorials on how to “reshape the face” with contouring makeup, how to make eyes look bigger, noses smaller, and smoother skin. The common messages are clear but contradictory: “become an artist of the self”, “make yourself beautiful” and “do it unnoticed”.
It is quite a task — time consuming, difficult to ignore and subject to wide interpretation. And it’s especially hard for women in politics. Some female politicians, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, play with catchy clothes, jewelry and bold makeup to make a statement. Others have settled for their own versions of a uniform. Vice President Kamala Harris has her Tahitian pearls and dark pantsuits; Senator Elizabeth Warren, her all-black outfits topped with soft, colorful jackets.
Key Revelations from the January 6 Hearings
Many of the (often young and attractive) women of the Trump administration preferred an overt, high-glam style, and we saw a lot of very long hair, dramatic false eyelashes, sheath dresses and stiletto pumps — a ” beauty pageant” atmosphere said favored by the former president.
At the hearing, Ms. Hutchinson’s image clearly differed from that aesthetic. She dressed as if she were ready to merge into the corridors of power, to do her job, to convey depth across the surface (although she was noticeably telegenic).
Mr Trump claimed not to know who Cassidy Hutchinson was, even though she worked just a few feet from the Oval Office. Maybe he didn’t know her. Perhaps she had a style that was less visible to him than that of other young women around him. But we all know her now for sure. And it’s unlikely the nation will forget the day Cassidy Hutchinson, with her precise, calm style, told her disturbing story.