America’s Female Politicians Have Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Fashion

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends the September 2021 Met Gala in New York City wearing a dress with the slogan ‘Tax the Rich’ © Ray Tamarra/GC Images

A chosen one sharing her beauty routine in an influencer-style video? Ten years ago, this would have been unheard of.

But a handful of female politicians have now openly begun to embrace the power of fashion and beauty to boost their image and reinforce their messages. Whether it’s US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her “Tax the rich” dress at the 2021 Met Gala, or Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s hipster mashup with quirky eyewear and 1950s twee silhouettes, their style statements are inseparable from those they make on the stump – and deserve special attention.

Politicians of both genders have long used clothing to shape their public images – from the laid-back denim looks of Ronald Reagan, which belied his Hollywood stardom past, to the earth tones of former US Vice President Al Gore. Even the absence of a fashion statement could sometimes say a lot: in an age when men generally wore hats, John F Kennedy did without them, earning him the nickname “Jack without a hat” and a reputation down-to-earth, despite coming from one of America’s wealthiest dynasties.

A declared interest in fashion was once seen as a political liability, especially for women – think ex-British Prime Minister Theresa May’s criticism of high heels and £1,000 leather trousers, or dust on the $150,000 from 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. shopping spree in luxury department stores, known as “Wardrobe-gate”. But these attitudes have largely disappeared.

Politicians who might have been celebrities just to their constituents have never been as widely visible as they are today, thanks to social media and streaming congressional hearings, so it stands to reason that the content of their closets made the news. The day after President Biden’s inauguration, you couldn’t scroll through social media without endless memes of a Senator Bernie Sanders in a parka and mittens.

And like pop stars, some politicians even now have “stans,” fandom-speak for obsessed fans who follow and applaud their every move.

Kamala Harris wears a rainbow jacket and Converse sneakers as she takes the stage

Kamala Harris in 2019, before becoming vice president, wearing Converse sneakers at Pride in San Francisco © Gabrielle Lurie/Hearst Newspapers/Getty

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a red dress and Cori Bush in a black blazer descending a staircase at the US Congress

Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) and Cori Bush on Capitol Hill © Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty

Ocasio-Cortez (or “AOC”) has racked up an 8.5-minute Instagram following on his personal account, rivaling that of most influencers; she shared her makeup routine with and her fashion secret (a Rent the Runway subscription) with Elle. And she is fully aware that fashion is imbued with symbolic power. The same goes for Vice President Kamala Harris, whose penchant for comfortable sneakers has earned her the nickname “Converse Candidate”, and Congresswoman Cori Bush, who chronicled her thrift store expedition to assemble a guard. -dress worthy of Congress on Twitter. With more women, especially younger women, entering politics, the focus on fashion has intensified.

Women are subject to greater scrutiny of their looks, especially women of color. They are held to higher standards for their professional dress and are expected to embody a number of paradoxes – powerful but wise, concealed but not overly primitive. They are also expected to follow trends in a way that their male counterparts are not. Sexism can too easily intrude on reviews of what they wear. Yet the impulse to view fashion as trivial also smacks of sexism.

The argument that we should ignore these clues altogether—or dismiss them as unimportant—does not hold. It reminds me of when The Representation Project’s hashtag #AskHerMore popped up, urging red carpet interviewers to ask about more than an actress’ fashion credits.

Maureen O’Connor, writing in The Cut, pointed out that redirecting away from fashion at a fashion-centric event was dishonest. “The moment a celebrity walks past a camera on the red carpet is the moment 40 minutes of Americans simultaneously assess the extraordinary works of art hanging from their shoulders, earlobes, wrists and neck,” said she writes.

Fashion is also part of their profession, given the sponsorship contracts that actors often sign with luxury brands. Cate Blanchett, who signed a $10 million deal with Armani fragrances in 2013, is just one example. “Asking Cate who she’s wearing doesn’t jeopardize her career,” O’Connor concluded, because “style and mouthpiece are elements of her career.”

Mrs Thatcher, seated, wears a purple bow tie, one of her trademark accessories

Margaret Thatcher, photographed circa 1990 © Tim Roney/Getty

Politicians are not paid to promote fashion brands, but they are public figures whose images can be very influential. And when the message someone’s clothes send – something they can choose and control – conflicts with what they represent, it’s worth setting that contradiction aside. Look at Margaret Thatcher’s deceptively mummy look: the pussy-bow blouses and structured handbags that softened her image and belied her austerity policies.

Senator Sinema has affected an eccentric hipster look that is rarely seen in politics: colorful wigs, funky glasses, golden knee-high boots and a ring that reads “Fuck you”. If I saw her out of context, I would probably think she was a leftist graphic designer.

Kyrsten Sinema wears a bright pink dress and glasses, and carries a matching handbag

Kyrsten Sinema at the United States Capitol last October © Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty

Kyrsten Sinema stands out from other members of the US Congress in a spectacular white designer outfit

Kyrsten Sinema in Congress in January 2020 © Alyssa Schukar/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

But Sinema’s appearance camouflages her views. Although Sinema is a Democrat, she falls into the Joe Manchin category of frequent Republican allies, a wolf in cute clothes. She’s also something of a cipher, a figure that was once considered progressive. It makes sense, then, that Sinema’s fashion choices are interpreted feverishly – her observers see them as a clue to her motives, just as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s collars have been read as a semaphore of how she is. pressed a Supreme Court vote, or Madeleine Albright’s choice of pins alluded to her views on foreign policy when she was US Secretary of State.

After the Met Gala, Ocasio-Cortez came under fire from both the political right and left — the right predictably pilloried her, while critics on the left called her attendance at a cost-intensive event. $30,000 per person and addressing many people. she advocated taxing. “At the end of the day, haters hated and thinking people were thinking,” she wrote on Instagram. “But we’ve all had a conversation about taxing the rich in front of the very people lobbying against it, and we’ve broken through the fourth wall of excess and showmanship.”

On the contrary, it was a modern and refreshing approach to fashion criticism. It said, look, I know you’re gonna be careful what I wear, so you might as well make it work for me.

Véronique Hyland is Director of Fashion Articles at American Elle and author of ‘Dress Code: Unlock Fashion from New Look to Millennial Pink‘ (Harper Perennial), a collection of essays on fashion’s relationship to politics, gender equality and everyday life

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