An elected representative sharing her beauty routine in an influencer-style video? A decade ago, that would have been unheard of.
But a handful of female politicians have now openly begun to embrace the power of fashion and beauty to burnish their images and reinforce their messages. Whether it’s US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her “Tax the rich” dress at the 2021 Met Gala, or senator Kyrsten Sinema’s hipster mélange of quirky glasses and twee 1950s-leaning silhouettes, their style statements are inseparable from the ones they make on the stump — and are worth paying close attention to.
Politicians of both sexes have long used clothing to craft their public images — from Ronald Reagan’s casual denim looks, which belied his past Hollywood stardom, to the earth tones of US former vice-president Al Gore. Even the lack of a fashion statement could sometimes speak volumes: in a time when men typically wore hats, John F Kennedy went without, earning him the nickname “hatless Jack” and a down-to-earth reputation, despite his coming from one of America’s wealthiest dynasties.
An avowed interest in fashion was once considered a political liability, especially for women — think of the critiques of UK ex-prime minister Theresa May’s kitten heels and £1,000 leather trousers, or the dust-up over 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s $150,000 shopping spree at luxury department stores, which became known as “Wardrobe-gate”. But those attitudes have largely fallen away.
Politicians who once might have been celebrities only to their constituents have never been as widely visible as they are today, thanks to social media and streamed Congressional hearings, so it stands to reason that the contents of their closets make news. On the day after President Biden’s inauguration, you couldn’t scroll through social media without endless memes of a parka- and mitten-clad Senator Bernie Sanders.
And like pop stars, some politicians now even have “stans”, fandom-speak for obsessed fans who track and applaud their every move.
Ocasio-Cortez (or “AOC”) has racked up an Instagram following of 8.5mn on her personal account, rivalling that of most influencers; she’s shared her make-up routine with Vogue.com and her fashion secret (a Rent the Runway subscription) with Elle. And she’s acutely aware that fashion is imbued with symbolic power. So is vice-president Kamala Harris, whose penchant for comfy sneakers earned her the nickname “the Converse candidate”, and congresswoman Cori Bush, who chronicled her thrift-shopping expedition to assemble a Congress-worthy wardrobe on Twitter. With more women, especially younger women, entering politics, the focus on fashion has intensified.
Women are subject to more intense scrutiny over their appearance, especially women of colour. They are held to higher standards for their professional dress and expected to embody a number of paradoxes — powerful yet demure, covered-up but not too prim. They’re also expected to keep up with trends in a way that their male counterparts are not. Sexism can too easily encroach upon critiques of what they wear. Yet the impulse to regard fashion as trivial also smacks of sexism.
The argument that we should ignore these cues entirely — or dismiss them as unimportant — doesn’t land. It reminds me of when The Representation Project’s #AskHerMore hashtag sprang up, urging red carpet interviewers to ask about more than an actress’s fashion credits.
The reality of being a regular person going to Congress is that it’s really expensive to get the business clothes I need for the Hill. So I’m going thrift shopping tomorrow.
Should I do a fashion show? ⬇️
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) November 11, 2020
Maureen O’Connor, writing in The Cut, pointed out that the redirect away from fashion at a fashion-centric event was disingenuous. “The moment when a celebrity steps in front of a red-carpet camera is the moment when 40mn Americans simultaneously assess the extraordinary works of craftsmanship hanging from her shoulders, ear lobes, wrists, and neck,” she wrote.
Fashion is also, given the endorsement contracts that actors often sign with luxury brands, part of their jobs. Cate Blanchett, who signed a reported $10mn deal with Armani fragrances in 2013, is just one example. “Asking Cate who she’s wearing doesn’t undermine her career,” O’Connor concluded, because “style and spokesmanship are elements of her career.”
Politicians aren’t paid to promote fashion brands, but they are public figures whose images can be highly influential. And when the message sent by someone’s clothing — something they can choose and control — conflicts with what they stand for, it’s worth picking that contradiction apart. Look at Margaret Thatcher’s deceptively mumsy 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 one rarely sees in politics: colourful wigs, funky glasses, gold knee-high boots and a ring that reads “Fuck off”. If I were to see her out of context, I’d probably think she was a left-leaning graphic designer.
But Sinema’s appearance camouflages her views. Although Sinema is a Democrat, she falls in the Joe Manchin category of frequent Republican allies, a wolf in cutesy clothing. She’s also something of a cipher, a figure who was once seen as progressive. So it makes sense that Sinema’s fashion choices are feverishly interpreted — her observers see them as a clue to her motivations, much as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s collars were read as semaphor for how she was leaning on a Supreme Court vote, or Madeleine Albright’s choice of brooches hinted at her opinions on foreign policy when she was US secretary of state.
After the Met Gala, Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism from both the right and the left of politics — the right pilloried her in the predictable way, whereas leftwing critics called out her attendance at an event costing $30,000 a head and catering to many of the people she advocated taxing. “Ultimately the haters hated and the people who are thoughtful were thoughtful,” she wrote on Instagram. “But we all had a conversation about taxing the rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and punctured the fourth wall of excess and spectacle.”
If anything, it was a modern, and refreshing, approach to fashion criticism. It said, look, I know you’re going to pay attention to what I wear, so I may as well make it work for me.
Véronique Hyland is fashion features director at American Elle and author of ‘Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion from the New Look to Millennial Pink’ (Harper Perennial), an essay collection about fashion’s relationship with politics, gender equality and everyday lives
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