Designing Woman

For UI President Sally Mason and others, the outfit may not make the woman, but it matters.

Sally MasonPragmatism may soon skirt the runway as more people struggle with employment and basic needs. But still, fashion parlance ought to remain, albeit for a serious purpose: business.

Such is Sally Mason’s wardrobe. Business first, pleasure second. And especially in today’s economic climate, sales are important. Which is just fine by Mason.

“Sale is just my favorite word,” Mason, 57, said late last fall during an interview. “I can’t ever stand to pay full price for anything. I look at a price tag and think, ‘That’s more than this brain can figure for clothes,’ if there’s no sale. Then I keep going.”

On a chilly autumn day some months ago, Mason wore high-heeled pumps, a cocoa-colored business suit, and an amber medallion that rested against a cardinal-red turtleneck. On her hands, rings winked and glimmered.

Any trace of slovenliness? Not a chance–not during a weekday when appearances and first impressions matter as much as they do for the high-profile, not when dressing to impress is more than a luxury and a lifestyle, it’s a professional necessity.

“Women who are in power need to be conscious of what they wear and how they come across,” said Loyce Arthur, UI associate professor of theater costume designer. “It is armor. When you put something out there, it’s a conscious effort to project an image. The fact she’s so open about what she wears says she wants to let people in on her personality.”

While talking fashion that afternoon in her office around a circular table that would rival King Arthur’s in size, Mason wasn’t the UI President, but a fashionista. Her presidential side meticulously plans university tuition, regularly meets with academics as far flung as Seoul, and has calculated a way out of the mishandled Hillcrest sexual assault investigation that earned her the ire of the community and state lawmakers last semester.

In the culture and age we live when every outfit Michelle Obama climbs into is scrutinized and dissected (TV pundits: Can you believe she wore that red dress! She simply glowed!) appearance matters. For many in power, clothing is a finely nuanced language that demands fluency.

For someone like Mason, arguably the most important education official in the state and one who manages a roughly $2.1 billion operating budget at the UI, fashion is a serious matter; even if shopping is pretty damn fun. She embraces her keen fashion antenna, and uses it.

“Your appearance conveys a message,” she said. “There’s power in it. And there’s also respect. If I show up to a business meeting not business dressed, I don’t get respected. Whether it’s power or respect, [fashion] does send a message.”

What that message is, however, differs from business meeting to dinner party to Hawkeye football game. Every outfit, every pair of earrings becomes an effort to broadcast the right persona. The question then for this Iowa icon becomes: What message should be sent?

Fashion is power

But the child who once tore through a bevy of garment stores with her mother in Manhattan is still with her.

On June 21, 2007, Mason was named UI president. Hugging her at the honorary ceremony was a jet-black women’s business suit that would surely make slacks queen (and Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton beam: creased, professional, un-self-consciously evoking confidence. Her stride was long; her gaze, austere.

It was then that she brought to Iowa a fashion taste that began in New York City, was refined in California and Kansas, and matured in Indiana – a melting pot of high-end blazers and top-shelf dresses. All for a reasonable price, she assures.

She sometimes strolls about campus in leather coats, leather vests, and size 9 Pikolinos shoes, every so often stopping to discuss this latest fashion trend or that particular outfit. When asked why she loves leather so much, she gave a sly look, saying, “I like clothes that feel good.” She pauses. “And I just got (a leather jacket) for $50!”

If anything, such fashion consciousness has grown in salience by the day with the emergence of Secretary Clinton and the new first lady as major players on the national picture. The evidence? Google. Type in “Michelle Obama fashion” and the search yields nearly seven million sites; and for Hillary more than three million. Meanwhile, for the often-reticent Laura Bush, only 600,000 hits appeared. Google spokespeople say that online searches for whatever designer the first lady wears to a public event spike shortly after the appearance.

Does all this attention paid to the clothes of women with authority detract or empower?

Opinions vary. Mary Lynn Damhorst, an Iowa State professor and expert in the sociological aspects of clothing, said both arguments ring true. To scrutinize a woman’s dress is to objectify her, she said. But yet, to scrutinize a woman’s dress is to award attention that otherwise wouldn’t have been received.

“There are so many options to play with (in women’s clothing) that it’s a creative self-actualizing activity for many women,” she said. “It’s fun. But also gives messages as women are more allowed to engage in symbols.”

Regenia Bailey, Iowa City Mayor, bemoans the attention paid to her dress: Can’t she just throw on a pair of blue jeans and be done with it? She said she forgot herself, and her position, one recent Friday when she went to a public event garbed in a jacket and jeans, only to be later criticized slightly for her casualness.

“People absolutely notice,” she said. “I always think twice about what I’m wearing and check to see if I’m comfortable being scrutinized in it.”

Whether right or wrong, high-profile women are often forced to meld elements of professionalism, feminism, and individuality – and for Mason, respect.

It’s a charge she can’t help but enjoy. Even in the fall of 2007, when Mason, Dean Linda Maxson, and Iowa Foundation President Lynette Marshall traveled to Okoboji to fund-raise, she needed to steal some time to shop in the city and mull the local discount racks. Not that there were any objections.

She and shopping buddy Marshall say such impromptu shopping sprees are unusual, but cherished the mixing of business and pleasure. Because it’s this pleasurable exercise that lends itself to objectives that are paramount for someone in power: staying relevant, commanding respect.

“We both enjoy a good sale and we don’t want to spend a lot of money,” Marshall said. “Just like a man who is in a professional role, we all want to be taken seriously. Wardrobe is an important part of that.”

The foundations of a shopping affair

Though roughly a half-century ago, Mason says she still remembers her first introduction to shopping along the strip malls of downtown Newark. She was younger than 10 when her mother took her out to the stores, Bamburgers and Kresges. Up and down the streets, people teemed in and out of the boutiques like bees in a honeycomb.

Mason hated it, she said. People were harried and rude, crazed with bargain lust. But this scene may be one of the closest things to a family craft in Mason’s family. Both Mason’s grandmother and mother were entrenched in the fashion industry. First, her grandmother as a retailer for L.S. Ayres in Indianapolis, then her mother with Gimbles in New York City.

“Growing up with my grandmother, my mother knew the business,” Mason said. “And like we always joked, ‘She could tie a mean bow.’ So she started in gift wrap.”

Mason’s mother raised her to love fashion as she did – and to love sales. Mason’s father was a World War II veteran and eventually a truck driver in New Jersey, while her mother was mostly a housewife. Money was tight. So the family had no choice but to live frugally. This lifestyle was an imprinting experience on Mason, she and Marshall say.

The uniform of past UI presidents

Mason’s dress code and its use of color and different fabrics has offered a presidential fashion that’s in a way more varied and individualistic than her predecessors, Gary Fethke and David Skorton. Both men adhered strictly to business attire. Charcoal two-piece and a Windsor knot, anyone?

Such fashion first became ubiquitous in the early 19th century when the United States stepped out of the industrial era and began to make money as fast as it could be printed. Business became a very serious endeavor and the dress code needed to mirror that, Arthur said.

“It was important for men then not to appear flighty, so they adopted a uniform of sorts that was very much a uniform – black, brown, gray suits, a subdued tie,” Arthur said. “It was a business man’s uniform.”

Though the uniform has become more subdued since, vestiges remain and show no signs of relinquishing their grip on the American business man. There’s usually no surprise in what a man will wear to a business meeting – his uniform.

Recalling his time as UI president between 1969 and 1981, President Emeritus Sandy Boyd said he normally wore dark sports coats most days, without a tie. From the moment he started teaching until the time he retired as president some 40 years later, Boyd donned mostly the same thing every day, dubbing himself “clueless” when it comes to fashion.

“I didn’t think much about how I was dressing,” Boyd said. “I just wore what I wore.”

This mindset for many males isn’t unusual: putting little to no thought into it. Such disinterest evokes manliness, Professor Damhorst said.

“One of the great things about being a man is that you don’t have to think about what you’re going to wear,” said Mason’s husband, Ken Mason, a UI professor of biology. “But (my wife) has to think about it.”

Sometimes however, the biology professor’s clothing belies his described fashion indifference. His casual wear frequently consists of finely-tailored earth-toned blazers complemented by size 11 Allen Edmonds leather loafers. Looking eerily like Sean Connery, the 49-year-old is a vigorous man of average height and build with gray-flecked hair and a salt-and-red-pepper beard.

His one accessory? A black ceramic Rado watch that cost thousands of dollars and sits like a beacon on his wrist.

It’s fair to say the university’s first man likes fashion. “The challenge is to find very nice clothes but to find them as cheaply as possible,” he said. “And right now, with the economy in bad shape, there are a lot more sales in retail – so we’ll do our part to stimulate the economy.”

And at the couple’s pay, that’s not hard to accomplish. The UI President makes roughly a half-million dollars per year, while her husband earns $50,000 in salary, then an additional $50,000 for his work in university fundraising.

“Our fashion definitely was different many years and many income levels ago,” Mason’s husband said. But even all those years ago, 19 in fact, when the couple first met on the picturesque campus of the University of California, Davis, fashion played a part in bringing them together. Mason’s air of regalness in her dress code immediately attracted him to her – though he was a just a graduate student then and “wore whatever was clean.”

Now, Mason’s husband said he continues to be surprised at the thought and creativity Mason puts into her outfits – a Nordstroms blouse here, Van Maur trousers there, and voilà! That she’s routinely able to strike a complex balance between fashion, comfort and frugality, while upholding the socially appropriate appearances in each fashion circumstance.

The saying goes that new leaders gain respect only when they show they deserve it. Maybe that’s why high-profile women seemingly have to be so careful with what they wear. There’s power in their versatility of dress, but pitfalls lurk. With so much choice, it’s that much easier to scrutinize. And maybe that’s why Mason may seem rather bashful about any clothing item or accessory item that could appear opulent. She, like her husband, wears a black ceramic Rado wristwatch.

“Well,” – pause – “I got it for $1,000, but it was on sale from $2,000!”