18-Oct, 02:24

10:19, June 05 112 0

2017-06-05 10:19:02
On the Runway: Megyn Kelly and the Politics of Dress

“Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly,” the television newsmagazine program that debuted on NBC over the weekend, has met with mixed reviews thus far — in part because, in her much-vaunted interview with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, Ms. Kelly didn’t seem to be able to rile him into saying anything more than his usual party line.

However, the show did inadvertently uncover one real piece of uncomfortable truth: the sexism that still exists around the female image in the news.

Here’s what happened: On Thursday, to drum up excitement around the show, Ms. Kelly and NBC tweeted pictures of her with Mr. Putin and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, before a dinner party the night before the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia, where Ms. Kelly was also a moderator, and where she was scheduled to interview Mr. Putin for her TV program. Both men were wearing their usual dark suits, but Ms. Kelly was wearing a sea-blue crushed-velvet off-the-shoulder cocktail dress with black spaghetti straps and a high slit, by the designer Yigal Azrouel.

Numerous websites then leapt to the conclusion that this is what Ms. Kelly had worn for her interview with Mr. Putin, and predictably went into — shock! horror! — judgment mode.

“What Are We to Make of Megyn Kelly’s Interview Attire?” asked the headline on New York Magazine.

“Megyn Kelly sports off-the-shoulder velvet dress to interview Vladimir Putin,” said AOL Entertainment.

“Megyn Kelly Turns on the Sex Appeal for Putin,” declared DailyZette.

There were also some less polite versions, but you get the idea. The general point being: How entirely inappropriate. It made almost as much news as the fact that Ms. Kelly had managed to snag Mr. Putin for an interview in the first place.

Except that it wasn’t true.

Oops.

Ms. Kelly did not wear the cocktail dress for her interview with Mr. Putin: She wore the round-neck black T-shirt with fluted white sleeves, a white belt and white trousers that she wore onstage at the economic forum. She was, in other words, all covered up and understated.

Indeed, more so, and in a more relaxed way, than she had ever been on Fox News. The vibe was leaning toward the Katharine Hepburn model, rather than the Lana Turner one, which was interesting in itself, and probably says more about how Ms. Kelly is trying to position herself now than the cocktail frock would have revealed.

(She also wore a simple black dress with metal grommet detail around the neck and waist to anchor her new program, a no-fuss look with a tougher edge.)

The velvet dress had just been for a dinner event, and in that context, it was not particularly shocking. The contrast between men’s dinner party wear and women’s dinner party wear has always been pretty extreme, when you think about it. You may not approve of it, but it wasn’t an outlandish clothing choice. We all have our power outfits.

So why the wide misinterpretation?

In part, Ms. Kelly’s own history as a Fox News host, where she often made waves because of her clothing choices, most notably when she wore a spaghetti-strap Ralph Lauren dress to the Republican National Convention.

Her appearance had also been the subject of controversy thanks to a GQ Magazine shoot that resurfaced during the presidential campaign, and was then used to, as she told The New York Times, “slut-shame” her.

She resolutely refused to apologize or distance herself from either wardrobe decision, instead using them as fodder for the argument that it was about time women be allowed to embrace their femininity, and dress like women — however they choose to define that term in a professional setting. Which made it easy to assume that she was wearing the shoulder-revealing blue dress during her first Big Get interview to mark her territory and move the boundaries ever more in that direction.

Also contributing to the confusion was our own discomfort with the idea of clothing that seems to exploit sexual politics, especially in a post-Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly world, where the reality of sexual harassment on TV is much in the conversation.

And we are increasingly confused about what constitutes “appropriate” clothing when it comes to women and the workplace; now that the suit is not the only option, and everything from turtlenecks to sheath dresses can be seen on TV, where is the line drawn? And who decides?

Maybe someday Ms. Kelly will opt for a velvet party dress when she interviews a world leader. If she does, it will probably be a conscious decision made for a strategic reason. Given how much Mr. Putin likes to use clothing — or lose clothing (at least his shirt) — to emphasize his stereotypical masculinity, it would have made some sense for Ms. Kelly to have weaponized her appeal to speak with him, but presumably she knew what the reaction would be.

She is one of few female power players even willing to discuss the subject of clothing, the role it plays in the workplace, and how it can be used. This apparently comes with its own risks, as her new program made clear. Instead of immediately assuming the worst, however, perhaps it’s time we applauded her for taking them.