Helen Santos’ West Wing Wardrobe
For proof of how far First Lady fashion has come under Michelle Obama, don’t look to Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton, but rather to Helen Santos, wife of fictional presidential candidate Matthew Santos in Season 6 and 7 of The West Wing.
Whereas the last two seasons of the show foresaw many early Obama administration appointments, from the election of a coloured candidate (in The West Wing, Santos was Latino and kept referring to himself as “the brown candidate”) to appointing Josh Lyman, a character loosely based on Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first Chief of Staff, as Santos’ Chief of Staff, it showed no foresight when it came to the First Lady.
Addressing a Yale law class in a 2001 commencement speech, shortly after the end of her tenure at the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton advised: “Your hair will send significant messages to those around you…Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will”. She could have made the same point about her wardrobe, considering the number of (often unflattering) column inches, it has generated over her 40 years in the public eye. Yet The West Wing, downright ignored the issue of clothes when it came to Helen Santos, possibly because its writing room was dominated by males who never had to wonder why fashion questions get asked to women more willingly than political ones.
Ignoring clothing could have been a way to make a point about how unfair the treatment of female versus male politicians outfits is. Instead, it is just another proof of how badly developed Helen Santos’ character, like so many other female characters on the show, was. To this day, despite watching the series multiple times, I have no idea about her education or professional background, just a vague feelingthat she came from a poor family.
Santos’ role was twofold. She gave the average Jane viewer an idea of how overwhelming a campaign, not to mention moving to the White House, might be if you are not the well educated Daughter of the American Revolution Abbey Bartlett was. Santos was her husband’s liberal conscience, reminding him where his heart was when he wanted to make the political choice rather than stick to his beliefs.
Dressed in a wardrobe of primary, block-coloured skirt suits, with a preference for red and blue (traditional political hues), and black or grey for more serious events, including church visits and the Democratic Convention, Santos is a blank canvas. The tops she wears underneath are equally boring; with neck types varying from the turtleneck to the round neck t-shirt. As much as I hate the concept, and as stupid as I find it, this is the definition of non-threatening dressing, and not a very good one. She’s neither sexy nor dowdy.
Santos’ single-breasted jackets, often with one button, emphasise actress Teri Polo’s waist. Her pencil skirts are knee-length and there is nothing in the way she dresses which expresses her personality. At best, you can surmise that her expected, business-like outfits, and the absence of imagination in her fashion choices, were a way for the wardrobe department to highlight how uncomfortable she is with her husband’s presidential bid and to express her fear at how it might affect her family. Yet, even as she warms up to the idea, for instance accepting to mortgage the Santos’ Houston house to fund the campaign if necessary, her clothing doesn’t change.
A few times in Season 7, Donna Moss urges Santos to define the kind of First Lady she would want to be, an issue which never gets resolved. She holds liberal views on healthcare and education, two key issue of Matt Santos’ platform, yet is never more than as a way to prod her husband into debate or provoke campaign manager Josh Lyman. We never actually get to know much about what she thinks as a person, as an entity separate from her husband, and her wardrobe reflects that.
The only moment Santos’ clothing becomes part of the narrative is in Running Mates (7x10), when tabloid photographers get a picture of her with her thong popping out of her trousers, starting a vague debate about candidates’ privacy which ends as quickly as it begins.
In Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, Robb Young argues that Jackie Kennedy’s outfits worked because they “echoed the mood of the country and indeed the world” just like Michelle Obama’s do; they, in turn, embody her husband’s promised change. Santos’ wardrobe could have echoed how groundbreaking a serious Latino Presidential hopeful was, or how important a candidate who took a more liberal position than Jed Bartlett was, even for a fictional America. Instead, it just reflects how much The West Wing shortchanged many of its female characters with poor character development and aborted story lines.