This week, a calm, even-toned conversation between two carefully dressed Republican women, Cassidy Hutchinson and Representative Liz Cheney, created one of the most explosive and riveting television events of the decade.
Americans were captivated listening to the testimony about President Donald J. Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6. But we were captivated visually, too, by the hundred tiny, but critical decisions that had gone into each woman’s style choices. Everything — hair, makeup, jewelry, wardrobe and nail care — seemed to communicate calm, control and, especially, neutrality.
The witness’s outfit was a nonevent. Ms. Hutchinson, an aide in the Trump White House, wore a fitted white blazer over a scoop-neck black top; a tiny, jeweled circle pendant on a chain close to her neck; and small stud earrings. The look was studiously neutral, eschewing any hint of spectacle or flash. Flattering without being “fashion-y.” Mature but not matronly. Since the clothes were intended to disappear, and the cameras spent much of the time trained on her face, the audience was left largely to contemplate her grooming choices.
She wore her shoulder-length dark hair smoothly blown out with a slight flip at the ends. (In perhaps her only “tell” of nerves, she adjusted her hair several times.) She wore minimally visible makeup — what appeared to be light bronzer, but no discernible colors of lipstick or eye shadow. Her manicure was also a completely colorless embellishment — a demure pearl white.
Viewers caught a glimpse of this manicure at one of the hearing’s most dramatic moments: when Ms. Hutchinson recounted being told that Mr. Trump, enraged at being kept from joining his armed supporters, had allegedly lunged at his Secret Service agent’s throat. In explaining this, Ms. Hutchinson offered a discreet pantomime of the action, placing her own hand lightly on her clavicle.
That one moment encapsulated the startling power of Ms. Hutchinson’s appearance before the House select committee: She was telling a frightening story, but she unspooled her memories in the most reserved, unthreatening, visually calming way imaginable. Her demeanor and her look were at distinct odds with the details of her testimony — and this disjunction itself, this striking contrast, threw her words in sharp relief, intensifying their impact.
Ms. Hutchinson’s measured demeanor and muted look mirrored that of her interlocutor, Ms. Cheney, the vice chairwoman of the committee. Throughout all the hearings, however troubling the revelations, Ms. Cheney has maintained the same unchanging facial expression, tone of voice and level affect. (By contrast, Representative Bennie G. Thompson, the committee chairman, permits himself moments of irony, even levity.)
She keeps her white-blond hair in a side-part style, with slight waves that look soft but never fall out of place or even move at all. The effect is stalwart, unflappable, a more senior version of Ms. Hutchinson’s look. She has stuck to a series of jackets in neutral tones, her crystal blue spectacles, pearls and the Capitol Police lapel pin she wears in solidarity with the officers.
That both women chose neutral tones, and such restrained, muted, almost unremarkable outfits, seems intentional, inviting viewers to focus more on the words than on appearances, and leaving little room for anyone to criticize their choices. Ms. Hutchinson in particular must have known that her credibility hinged on the way she would be perceived as she stepped into the national spotlight the first time.
Women’s choices in matter of dress and grooming are always more fraught than men’s. We have so many more decisions to make (hair, makeup, jewelry, heel height, pants or skirts) and hence so many possible avenues of visual communication — and, of course, miscommunication. And particularly for young women in the professional world, the daily task of constructing a look at once attractive and “serious” can feel like traversing a minefield.
Young women are also a primary target of “beauty culture” and its vast array of products, techniques and dictates. Social media teems with thousands of tutorials on “reshaping one’s face” with contouring makeup, how to make eyes look bigger, noses smaller, skin smoother. The overall messages are clear but contradictory: “become an artist of the self,” “make yourself beautiful” and “do it imperceptibly.”
It’s a tall order — time-consuming, hard to ignore and subject to wide interpretation. And it’s especially hard for women in politics. Some female politicians, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, play with arresting clothes, jewelry and bold makeup to make a statement. Others have settled on 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 Jan. 6 Hearings
Many of the (often young and attractive) women of the Trump administration favored 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” vibe said to be favored by the former president.
At the hearing, Ms. Hutchinson’s image was distinctly different from that aesthetic. She dressed as if ready to blend into the corridors of power, to do her job, to convey depth over surface (although she was noticeably telegenic).
Mr. Trump claimed not to know who Cassidy Hutchinson was, although she worked only a few feet away from the Oval Office. Perhaps he didn’t know her. Perhaps she had a style less visible to him than that of other young women in his orbit. But we all certainly know her now. And the nation is unlikely to forget the day Cassidy Hutchinson, with her precise, low-key style, told her disturbing story.