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Nikki Haley, Seeking the Right Style to Make Big Statements


Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, left, and Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, heading to the Security Council chamber on April 28, 2017, for a briefing on North Korea. US STATE DEPARTMENT

If Nikki Haley is dressing for attention, honestly, it would be hard to fault her. One of the few women named to President Trump’s administration, Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who is the ambassador to the United Nations, has been set adrift in a different region of the country, in foreign policy for the first time and in verticals of global political power in which she has little experience.

Past United States administrations usually worked closely with the US mission to the UN to convey White House policies on global matters. But Haley appears unanchored — or set loose — from the Department of State in Washington, either by design or by disorganization.

Amid all the media attention around her boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his boss, Trump, even articles about Haley overlook the ambassador.

In a Teen Vogue article, “Nikki Haley: What to Know About the New U.N. Ambassador,” Lily Herman writes, “Haley has grown in power and influence in a short period of time, even more so than more prominent women in the Trump White House, like Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway.” Despite Herman’s calling Haley powerful, the article features photos of Trump and Conway but none of Haley.

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Haley wore a Schiaparelli-pink matching jacket and dress on April 28 as she sat behind Tillerson in the UN Security Council amid a packed chamber discussing the nuclear threats of North Korea. The bright dress could very well have been read as a power play. Because the US held the rotating presidency of the Council in April, Tillerson sat in Haley’s hot seat that morning, wearing the male diplomat’s uniform of dark suit and colorful tie. The secretary of state happened to be wearing a red tie that day, which clashed with Haley’s ensemble.

In her eye-catching jewel-tone outfit, Haley reminded the 14 other ambassadors (all men) and other high-level government ministers gathered in the Council that she was the self-styled new sheriff in town, a woman with a hard-edged stand on policy who would be there after Tillerson retreated back to Washington. In her first remarks at the UN in January 2017, Haley attempted to establish her new role as sheriff, to which her penchant for bright colors — Haley has worn a sapphire-blue dress to several major occasions — serve as exclamation points.

“Our goal with the administration is to show value at the UN, and the way that we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies, and make sure that our allies have our back, as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names — we will make points to respond to that accordingly,” Haley told a crowd of UN staff members and others assembled in a UN lobby in January about her new position.

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Haley, who is 45, wore the pink dress earlier in April — on the 18th, when as president of the Council she held what she contended was the first-ever debate on human rights in the chamber. It could be that Haley’s photogenic choice was a tool to magnify the inauguration of the human-rights topic. Ten days later, the pink ensemble might have been used to upstage Tillerson or to appear his equal.

It has been no secret that the State Department has failed, at times, to consistently provide a coherent policy for Haley to promote at the UN, a result of Tillerson providing little direction for State, although that dynamic appears to be more coherent since Tillerson’s appearance at the UN on April 28.

Haley is rumored to have larger ambitions than the UN, as pundits have been saying that she may be the Republican Party’s solution for a female candidate for president someday. Or, perhaps more accurately, given the party’s current hostile policies toward women, the vice presidency.

As Sara Brittany Somerset of Diplomat Style (@diplomat_Style), who outfits diplomats for special occasions and photo shoots, put it: “Haley has a classic take on power dressing that stays true to its Southern Charm.”

By eschewing the classic New York ensemble of all black, Haley also sends a message to her party, her home state and the rest of that region that she’s still a Southerner, still a Republican, and is not converting to Northeast elitist liberalism, even if she is living among that crowd in high splendor.

The feminine, manicured style of her clothes also sets Haley apart from her immediate predecessor, Samantha Power, who was often photographed in black or gray pantsuits with her long hair unbound or barely restrained in a ponytail. Her style suited what Christiane Amanpour called Power’s “muscular approach to standing up for human rights.”

Once in a while, Power attended Security Council meetings in a dress, modish or sexy or both, showing some arm, keeping the other 14 members in the room, all men during the end of her term, off guard. Unlike Haley’s closet of many colors or Power’s rejecting suits for dresses to shake things up, male politicians and diplomats have far fewer options when making a style statement.

While President Barack Obama once said that he preferred having fewer suits so he would have fewer choices to make about what to wear, in truth, male politicians and diplomats have little variety available to them beyond a dark suit and some form of individual expression in a tie.

Male ambassadors, Somerset points out, can make a statement by appearing in national dress but their ability to create an individual style is often restricted. In some cases, like that of Trump and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, they can further reveal themselves in a head of fantastical — blond — hair.

Although female diplomats and politicians may have a broader spectrum of dressing and style from which to craft their personal look, they also face much greater scrutiny for the clothing they choose.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is called the most powerful woman in the world, ran into trouble in 2008 when she broke from her standard three-button high-neck jacket, worn in a rainbow of hues with black or neutral pants, to appear in a low-cut evening gown in a situation that demanded such wear.

The headlines the next day ran with sexist jokes like “Merkel’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” in the Daily Mail, the British tabloid. Ironically, when Merkel recently took part in an event honoring Obama at a black-tie event, she was criticized for wearing pants to the occasion.

Merkel’s style is often associated with her politics. Lee Sheppard, writing for Forbes, described her as a “no-nonsense rational woman partial to consensus politics [whose style demonstrates] consistency and prudence, two qualities that generalize [German] politics.”

Haley, too, has received harsh appraisal for her sartorial choices. In a Politico article of 2013, Tim Gunn, a Project Runway host, and Ada Calhoun, a journalist, criticized yet another bright pink jacket and skirt of Haley’s, saying it looked like “it was made out of curtains.”

The article tackled the appearance of both male and female politicians, suggesting that Paul Ryan, the US Congressman from Wisconsin, should offset his youthful appearance by dressing in bluer suits because that’s just what politics and diplomacy need. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was advised to trade in his trademark boots for wingtips.

Rather than offering advice to Haley on improving her image, Gunn and Calhoun commented on her style, amid talk of  her possibly running for president in 2016, “Unpredictable and erratic — is that the description of someone we want to have the nuclear codes?”

Haley delivering the State of the State Address as governor of South Carolina, Jan. 22, 2014. GOVERNOR’S OFFICE/SAM HOLLAND

Women in politics and power are still judged by the metrics of the fashion industry. Gunn and Calhoun judged Haley as erratic for wearing a skirt suit during the day and a ballgown to a formal event, absolutely acceptable clothing for each occasion. She was judged not by her ability to handle the nuclear codes but on her appearance.

In “Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion,” Robb Young writes that women adopted men’s clothing style long before the 1980s and the term “power dressing” came into play to demonstrate influence and clout. As Young wrote, the first Egyptian female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, not only adopted men’s style of the time, but also during her 20-year reign she wore a metal beard and the same cobra-adorned headdress as a male pharaoh.

But how a female politician or diplomat dresses is not simply whether to pantsuit or not to pantsuit. The style of women in power has always been given much more analysis than their male counterparts have received. Since the establishment of the post-World War II international order, in 1945, there have been 75 women in world leadership positions, beginning with the 1960 election of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as prime minister of Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka.

That number is little more than one woman elected to office a year since the war’s end. Of the modern global powers, the first woman elected to leadership was Margaret Thatcher of Britain, in 1979. If all 75 women were in office today, they would represent only 39 percent of all UN member states.

Given the low numbers that persist for women in leadership positions, they are still defining the right combination of gender and power in the global political system. Additionally, women have used style and dress as a voice when they may feel voiceless or excluded from their rightful seat at the proverbial table. In the 20th century, the suffragettes of Britain and the US all wore white while protesting for the right to vote. Hillary Clinton, in accepting the Democratic Party presidential nomination last summer, also wore white.

An almost-mythic power persists in how women style themselves in meetings. The BBC once credited Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, with changing the outcome of a tense meeting by simply undoing her signature accessory, a scarf. (As a Frenchwoman, she could not be seen without it.) Lagarde’s scarves also drew criticism, as some observers thought it was tone deaf of her to wear Hermès while imposing austerity on some European countries or while visiting sub-Saharan countries where many people live on less than $2 a day.

Like Lagarde, Haley is often seen in classically cut yet feminine clothes, from Chanel-esque tweed skirt suits to brightly colored snug-fitting dresses to pale-hued or all-white ensembles, projecting an image that is sophisticated but also conservative business attire. She broke with her traditional colors, though, to wear a navy blue wide-plaid suit to the lunch at the White House in April, where Trump welcomed the UN Security Council members and their spouses.

He joked to the Council: “Now, does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t [laughter] — otherwise, she can easily be replaced.”

While Lagarde is often photographed in both pantsuits and skirt suits, Haley is often photographed in dresses and skirts. In February, the media outlet Axios reported that President Trump wanted the women in his administration to “dress like women” — to wear dresses (maybe preferably the Ivanka Trump line, but the anonymous source in the unsubstantiated article did not elaborate).

When Haley resumed her seat at the Security Council presidential seat in April, after Tillerson returned to Washington, she once again addressed some of the most serious problems of the world. Since then, she’s worn a bright blue dress with a 1950s-style jacket; an off-white and seafoam-green raw silk suit that had stylists raving “stunning”; and a dress with intermittent patterns that would make Tim Gunn’s eyebrows meet his receding hairline.

Since then, several members of the Trump administration, including Haley, have headed to the Middle East and Turkey. Ivanka Trump and Melania Trump, the first daughter and first lady, avoided wearing scarves to cover their hair while in Saudi Arabia.

Odds are that as Haley visits refugee camps in Jordan and in Turkey, she will not be wearing classically tailored raw-silk ensembles. As to whether she will wear a hijab, her style enigma remains.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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Nikki Haley, Seeking the Right Style to Make Big Statements
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7 years ago

I was thinking of sharing this article with my students as we will be discussing the US at the UN under Trump but I though better of it. Reading on and on I couldn’t believe that a female reporter would seriously do this dumbsh* thing of drawing policy conclusions from the way a female politician dressed! I mean seriously??? Focussing on her dress style is just plain sexist as it is diminishing and belittling. I certainly do not agree with anything Nikki Haley stands for but she certainly deserves to be taken seriously for her diplomacy and politics. These policies would be terrible no matter how she dresses and I don’t see that any male UN ambassador has ever come under scrutiny for their clothing.

7 years ago
Reply to  Catherine

Catherine –

The editors at PassBlue forwarded your comment on the Nikki Haley article to me.

I’d like to respond to your comments, which I appreciate reading. We both agree that trying to find policy in how anyone dresses is belittling and diminishing, which is why I wrote in the article the following statement.

“Women in politics and power are still judged by the metrics of the fashion industry. Gunn and Calhoun judged Haley as erratic for wearing a skirt suit during the day and a ballgown to a formal event, absolutely acceptable clothing for each occasion. She was judged not by her ability to handle the nuclear codes but on her appearance.”

The purpose of this statement and calling the headlines making fun of Merkel sexist was to show that it is a sexist practice that the media engages in, and that it is impossible to derive policy from clothing, because women have higher demands for different outfits based on the specific occasion – the pink tax makes its way into the closet. One objective of the article was to show the extraordinary and ridiculous demands societies put on women in politics and diplomacy.

The article points out, and I think fairly, that Haley likes bright colors (as a pale redhead, I’m more than a little jealous of the colors she can pull off). It also points out that Haley has self-identified as the new sheriff in town. Additionally, I also point out that on policy Haley has been inconsistent possibly because she is learning about verticals of global power in her new role at the UN and has received little direction from the State Department. The bright colors may be her way of establishing her presence in her new position. This does not, however, constitute any assessment of her policy based on her clothing, other than to say that she is there, in bright colors, making occasionally definitive statements.

As you note, it was not a short article, but it calls out the media’s sexist tendencies to assess a woman’s appearance as a reflection of her ability to do her job, while also giving women’s appearance an almost mythic power (see: the paragraph about Lagarde and the BBC’s somewhat ridiculous attribution to the power of her scarf knot.)

One reason I include how few women there have been in positions of global power since the end of WW II was to show that there is no standard for a women in such a position to turn to as there is for men. And yet, there is always an overlay of judgment. Having noted that predicament, I added that when women are voiceless, they have also used clothing to make a statement to procure of a voice.

Men are lucky, as discussed in the article, in that they can add accessories to their standard uniform – grey suit, blue suit, grey suit, blue suit – to have minimal expressions of individuality that generally go unnoticed. Except, of course, the use of a tie to reflect individuality.

The end of the article tries to show that Haley has style, but her real gig is addressing the gravest problems and threats facing the current global world order.

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