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Broadwell's halter and the women's fashion challenge

Washington Post Writers Group
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:20 AM

Let's talk about the halter top.

If you've been following the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell story, you may have seen this shirt: black and silky and flouncy and very, very arm-baring. Also shoulder-baring.

Not what your mother would advise you to wear on national television. Not what my mother would advise, anyway. Even if the national television is "The Daily Show" and you have a push-up contest planned with Jon Stewart.

Why am I bringing this up, again? I referred to the halter top in a recent column about Petraeus, noting, "Beware the woman who goes on 'The Daily Show' wearing a black silk halter top and flaunting her toned triceps."

Some readers — some female readers, to be precise — chided me for sexism. "Why is it OK to imply that a woman who wears a halter top to show off her guns on 'The Daily Show' must be a seductress?" asked one emailer. "That is dangerously close to the mindset that suggests women who are raped are somehow responsible because of the way they dress. Shame on you."

Another reader, in a letter to the editor, wondered, "Are black silk halter tops the mark of some sort of vindictive, national security-threatening evildoer? Or was Marcus resorting to stereotypes?" Her conclusion: "Dumping on Broadwell because of how she dresses does a disservice to all women."

These are reasonable points. So let me explain why my response is to double down on the halter comments.

Women, especially women who are in public life, have it a lot harder than men when it comes to clothes. Men have uniforms — literally, in the case of the military, figuratively in the business world. These are comforting in their mindlessness and automaticity; they are reliable signifiers of status.

It is no accident that Petraeus is reported to have shown up to speak at a Washington dinner wearing military medals on his suit jacket lapel. "In public, he seemed to miss the comfort and confidence that his uniform provided," The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe wrote.

Testify before Congress, wear your navy suit, or maybe your charcoal one. Go to the Aspen Institute for a security panel, bring a navy blazer and chinos. When President Obama wakes up, he picks between the gray suits and the navy ones.

For women in the public eye, all fashion choices are high wire. Just ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Appear on the Senate floor with a shirt just a few centimeters off and you get a fashion critic writing about your public display of cleavage.

So when Broadwell shows up — repeatedly — in skimpy, form-fitting, attention-grabbing outfits, she is making a fashion statement: Look at me! Pay attention to my body!

The halter was not a one-off, it was a theme. In Afghanistan, the Post reported, Broadwell's "form-fitting clothes made a lasting impression on longtime Afghan hands, and Petraeus once admonished her, through a staffer, to 'dress down.' "

Of course Petraeus is responsible for his misconduct; my point was that he should have looked at her and known better. But she should have known better, too. No woman is responsible for being raped, no matter what's she's wearing. We are responsible, however, for the way in which we present ourselves publicly. We are asking for sexist treatment when we dress like sex objects.

If you want to be taken seriously, dress the part. That doesn't mean frumpy or mannish, it just means appropriately for the occasion.

In other words, it's not that "dumping on Broadwell because of how she dresses does a disservice to all women." If there was any disservice to women, it was how Broadwell dressed.

Ruth Marcus' column is distributed by Washington Post Writers Group