Throw the Suit Out! How Women Are Creating Their Style

We know dress communicates, and, unfortunately, we do judge a book by its cover.

Posted Dec 02, 2020

 Rob Marmion
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There is a part of me that gets tired of seeing a sea of blue suits worn by men in politics and also the constant, scrutinizing watch of women’s dress, especially in politics. It was such a surprise to see Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta, in a bright yellow dress with a big multi-colored bead necklace. It called attention to her “person” and accomplished the goal — to get noticed. Deb Haaland, the first Native American to be elected to Congress, wore native jewelry, calling attention to her native identity.

Old school rules dictate for women to have a power color suit, preferably navy blue, to enhance their credibility and a strand of pearls. Another rule is no costume jewelry, as worn by Keisha Lance Bottoms. We know dress communicates, and, unfortunately, we do judge a book by its cover. Maybe women are communicating the rules have changed, and more diversity in dress is used as a branding for the change that is taking place in the representation of women.

Carol Mosely Braun, the former senator from Illinois, suggested, “Politics follows the culture, not the other way around, so what you are looking at is a cultural shift.” She was only the second Black woman to be elected to Congress, and in the 1990s, she wore her hair in braids. We remember when Angela Davis, a political activist and academic in the 1970s, wore an afro as a political statement about her heritage as an African-American. We also remember when the pantsuit was revolutionary, and at first, women were criticized as if they were trying to dress like men. Hillary Clinton was often criticized for wearing pantsuits. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn joined in, saying in 2011, “Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender.” Maybe it was a way to level the playing field and equalize power between men and women.

Anna North, in her article, "America’s Sexist Obsession With What Women Politicians Wear Explained," cites a tweet sent by writer Eddie Scarry of the conservative Washington Examiner who made headlines (and spawned countless memes) when he tweeted a photograph of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City Democrat, with the caption, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” He was calling attention to her working-class background and the conflict of seeing her dressed up, reflecting a counter-image of her background.

The problem arises when the media focuses on women’s dress as a way to erode their credibility. Why is women’s dress a topic of conversation but not men’s dress? Discussing women politicians’ clothing doesn’t have to be sexist. We know clothing is an integral part of self-presentation, and choosing clothes is something many people enjoy. People in public life, politicians included, typically put a lot of thought into what they wear, and their decisions often have a symbolic meaning.

An example is when Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to Donald Trump’s inauguration. White is the color representing the suffragists. The wearing of white continued when women in Congress created a sea of white in the House chamber during President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, a coordinated wardrobe choice that marked the latest iteration of how female lawmakers are using clothing to highlight their visibility and telegraph intent.

I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sums it up best in a tweet she sent during her campaign: If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside.