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Hillary Clinton's signature pantsuits could change the presidential fashion scene

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'Pantsuit Nation' suited up for Election Day

WATCH  | What are Hillary Clinton's signature pantsuits saying about female presidential fashion?

Sending a message

Politicians make lots of decisions every day. What they choose to wear may be among the most important -- because with fashion, they're sending a message.

"It's a tool that can be used to show your feelings and your support," Beth DinCuff, assistant fashion history professor at Parsons School of Design, told Circa.

So what are Hillary Clinton's signature pantsuits saying about presidential fashion?

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Hillary Clinton. (Credit: CNN)

As the first serious female presidential contender, her style is historic.


Breaking the (style) glass ceiling

"She is the one who needs to distinguish between what a first lady looks like and what a female president looks like," DinCuff explained. And, she said, one of the easiest ways Clinton can do so is with pantsuits as a "masculine kind of visual clue."

Why pantsuits? DinCuff explained that it's not that she can't wear dresses or that skirts aren't presidential material -- it's that as a culture, we aren't quite progressive enough yet.

Women still have to dress a certain way

DinCuff, who is the acting curator of the Parsons Fashion Archive, puts it this way:

Even in other Western countries where women have cracked the highest glass ceiling that Clinton is attempting to break down in the United States, women in power are to some extent still having to dress a certain way to be taken seriously.

Take German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May or International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde. These women are often photographed wearing pantsuits. 

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President Bill Clinton and first lady Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. shown with President-elect George W. Bush and his wife Laura on the North Portico of the White House before leaving for Capitol Hill, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2001. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"If you see a picture of a man and a woman presidential couple in front of the White House and the woman's in a dress, visually you're going to think, 'Oh that's the first lady,' even when it's the president," DinCuff said.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

She may not be a style setter, but what Clinton wears will help shape the look for future female presidential style.

Take her GOP-red pantsuit at the first presidential debate.

The color is important.
Beth DinCuff

"I was surprised she wore red, but I do think her wearing a red ensemble was purposeful," DinCuff said. "The color is important."

In politics, color serves as a means for expressing a message. Clinton's message?

A nod to the Republicans that aren't super jazzed about their nominee for president or the current state of the party, DinCuff said.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits talks with a group of little kids as she visits a polling place a Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

If she wins, Clinton's style decisions -- good or bad -- will be what potential future female presidents have to draw from. As the leader of the free world, what she wears will be something people notice.

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Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. (Credit: AP)
Joe Biden. (Credit: AP)
Former presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush with their wives, former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. (Credit: AP)
Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. (Credit: AP)

But it's not just the fashion elite that pick up on style cues, which is why you see first ladies, politicians and presidents watching what they wear.

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In this Sept. 26, 1960 file photo, moderator Howard K. Smith sits between, Sen. John Kennedy, left, and Vice President Richard Nixon as they appear on television studio monitor set during their debate in Chicago. (AP Photo)

Style has become more a priority for politicians since the '60s after the first televised presidential debates. "John F. Kennedy came off looking much younger and vital. Richard Nixon came off as looking shifty and nervous and sweaty," she said.

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President George Bush, left, poses with former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon in the courtyard of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. in this Nov. 4, 1991 photo. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)

Those debates helped establish a specific look and style expectation for male presidents.

"It's very much like an East Coast, a little bit of preppy, a little bit of professional businessman," she said.

Jackie Kennedy set the pace

These looks work, as DinCuff explains, because they are accessible.

What our presidents have worn are really "the basic business look for American men, it's easily relatable," so you don't see them deviate from it much.

For American women in high-profile positions, Jackie Kennedy was a clear trend setter. Because of her, "The fashion industry became very interested in using the first lady as a spokesperson or role model for American fashion," she said.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton, wearing sunglasses, talks with supporters at the Chicago and Northwestern commuter station in Glen Ellyn, Ill., oThursday, Sept. 24, 1992. (AP Photo/Mark Elias)
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, as she campaigns for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Nancy Reagan wife of Ronald Reagan in 1975. (AP Photo)
Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy enters the Theater de Lys in New York's Greenwich Village for a musical performance of Leonard Bernstein songs, July 28, 1965. Others are unidentified. (AP Photo/John Lent)

As for Clinton, DinCuff doesn't think her style is "really going to be commented on, but it's going to be analyzed."

So you may not think of her as a style icon, but as the first female president, her fashion choices could leave a mark.

She is our visual and cultural transition from what a woman in the White House looks like from first lady to president.
Beth DinCuff,

Who knows, she might even help make the pantsuit relevant again.

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