Political Power Dressing: What Fashion Might Say about Female Candidates’ Political Success

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There is power in a good outfit. Before people learn anything about us, the first thing they see is our appearance. Whether you are a true fashionista or just someone who isn’t concerned about clothes, some contend we are what we wear.

Beginning in the 20th century, the wardrobe of women in the political sphere became a talking point. Eleanor Roosevelt, who is considered by many historians to be one of the most influential First Ladies in history, was well documented in elaborate evening gowns, fur stoles, and fascinator hats. First Lady Jackie Kennedy is considered one of America’s greatest fashion icons. During the Obama years, First Lady Michelle Obama brought a slate of American designers to prominence and furthered their household name status including Jason Wu, Derek Lam, and Monique Lhuillier.

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When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made her 2016 bid for president, she enlisted the help of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to assist with her wardrobe choices. Ralph Lauren silk pants suits became one of Clinton’s major staples. Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has also found her choices under a microscope, including a pair of Timberland boots she recently wore on the campaign trail that made waves for helping her look more relatable.

When Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, was selected by presidential nominee John McCain to be his running mate, Palin’s wardrobe was completely revamped. Their campaign reportedly spent $150,000 on campaign wardrobe with pieces from top department stores Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Palin went from being the little-known governor of Alaska to a vice-presidential nominee with a tailor-made image. It was an image of aspiration and political power.

For women in politics, they must also think about the power of their fashion choices, because they have a way to send messages and move conversation in a way that transcends the good old boys club of elected office. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the election on November 3, for the first time ever a woman will hold the office of vice president. This also means that Kamala Harris will be setting the modern framework for the image of future female politicians to come, and image, of course, involves fashion choices.

So far, Harris has been the mother of non-invention. Whereas First Ladies are often meant to make a statement with their clothes, and even Hillary Clinton had her entire image revamped to run for president, Harris has opted to keep it as simple as possible. At the vice-presidential debate she opted for an all-black ensemble that was elevated with a pearl necklace and pearl earrings. With every move she makes being under such strict scrutiny, her clothes reveal little for the press and observers to read into. This could be interpreted as  a smart tactic on her part.

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By contrast, Dr. Jill Biden, the professor, former Second Lady of the United States, and wife of presidential candidate Joe Biden, recently made a less than subtle statement in a pair of Stuart Weitzman boots that had word “VOTE” sprawled across them. The boots were completely sold out on Stuart Weitzman’s website within minutes of photos of her wearing them.

Jill Biden also made another statement at the first presidential debate when she wore a fringe dress by Latina designer Gabriela Hearst. Hearst recently won the 2020 CFDA Award for Womenswear Designer of the Year. In a way, it was a subtle nod by Jill Biden acknowledging that Latinos are one of the fastest growing economic and political voting blocks in the US.

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If there’s a Latina in politics whose fashion choices happen to make almost as much noise as her legislative agenda, it’s New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Ocasio-Cortez first made headlines for defeating incumbent Joe Crowley, who was once seen as a likely successor to Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Since then, she’s not only advocated for one of the most liberal political agendas in modern history, but she also managed to quickly earn the love of fashionistas as well.

In a 2018 Interview Magazine article, Ocasio-Cortez was photographed in a Gabriela Hearst suit, and what made headlines from this interview was the $3000 price tag on the outfit, while some tried to say her fighting for the working class shouldn’t afford her the privilege of wearing pricey designer suits. Ocasio-Cortez quickly clapped back on Twitter saying:

  1. a) The alt-right doesn’t seem to understand the concept of magazine shoots
  2. b) You don’t get to keep the clothes, duh
  3. c) I don’t “pretend” to fight for a Living Wage & Medicare for All. I do it
  4. d) Get used to me slaying lewks because I am an excellent thrift shopper

AOC would later spark similar controversy for showing up in a $580 dress on an episode of The View. She quickly reminded her critics she rents, borrows, and thrifts her clothes, all of which are environmentally sustainable options.

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The fashion industry hasn’t really embraced First Lady Melania Trump due to the left-of-center views of most fashion editors and designers, but that hasn’t stopped her from making headlines with her fashion choices, good or bad. At the 2016 RNC convention, the white Roksanda dress that Melania Trump wore for her speech sold out in record time on Moda Operandi. However, Melania’s biggest misstep would come when she wore a Zara coat that said, “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” while visiting a detention center for migrant children. The outfit would land her in hot water for what many viewed as her actual feelings toward detained migrants. It was a reminder that female political figures have to watch how their fashion choices speak, whether their clothes literally have a message spelled out or the message is subtle.

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Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to Donald Trump, even proved that she, too, could move fashion conversation. While her fashion choices were often considered less than favorable and admirable, Conway became one of the most memed women in America after she wore a $3600 Gucci coat adorned with feline buttons to Donald Trump’s inauguration. The red, white, and blue color-blocked coat was considered quite on message and truly patriotic, despite Gucci being an Italian brand. While Gucci has not opted to openly align themselves with Kellyanne Conway, any press is good press.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim in Congress, has found the spotlight on her due to her very left of center political positions, but also for her modest fashion choices. As women look for ways to dress up in less skin-revealing clothing while still preserving their religious and cultural beliefs in style, Omar has found herself an inspiration to many. She even landed the cover of Vogue Arabia, cementing her status as both a political and a fashion star. Omar’s choice to wear her hijab on the House floor, which defied a rule that’s been around for almost two centuries, sent the message that she is here to work to lift bans on not just fashion choices, but also anything that can infringe upon human rights and civil liberties.

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With Hollywood red carpets on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrities are currently out of the spotlight, giving way for political figures becoming the new go-to source from which the public takes their fashion cues. “There is such a platform for women in politics and their fashion choices given the current climate right now,” said Lauren Rothman, a fashion consultant who works with women running for office. “Celebrities have taken a backseat to frontpage news and politics is at the forefront. It’s a unique rare time that the fashion of so many women in politics is on display. When everyone is looking for something to talk about, it is a great time to get noticed whether you are a designer who’s dressing a political figure or a political figure who is discovering their style while in office or running for office.”

The idea of image-making has become more ingrained as part of the platform for women running for office in the past twelve years. Fashion can be used to communicate messages, like in the case of Jill Biden’s vote boots. While female legislators can’t be expected to be dressed in high fashion the likes of First Ladies like Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, there is now opportunity to transform the way working women dress.

“Dressing women who are running for office continues to be an entire growth area for the fashion industry,” Rothman said. “These are people who the everyday person looks up to. The budget of a public official isn’t that high, so you don’t see a lot of people running for office in designer clothes, and I don’t think that’s going to change. There needs to be more collections available for working women to curate a wear to work wardrobe. How do you dress when your workplace is Capitol Hill and The Whitehouse? As designers start curating collections to dress these kinds of working women this will leave room for designers to create entirely new collections and for emerging designers to design new collections to fit this market. Affordability is key and things to need be accessible.”

The wardrobes of women in politics will continue to be conversation pieces. It is a reminder that fashion has the power to move the needle in cultural conversation, and even be a part of changing the world. The future of political dressing is looking empowered, whether it be senators opting for muted colors, so you focus more on their policies, or First Ladies flaunting their fiercest high fashions. Dress for what you want in life, including the office you’re aiming for.

—Kristopher Fraser

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