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Fashion in Politics

Following yesterday’s inauguration of President Biden, the internet is bursting with celebration of fashion icon Michelle Obama, fashion shirker Bernie Sanders (who stayed warm in mittens sustainably made from recycled fibers!), and other notably dressed attendees. Some may see these as trivial asides or even inappropriate distractions. While I sincerely hope that President Biden and his advisors are not spending their first hours in the oval office swooning over Amanda Gorman’s Prada headband, there is paramount symbolism in the clothing of our political leaders.

Color symbolism in politics

The vast majority of U.S. elected offices have been held by (white) men. When addressing their constituents, they wore the typical menswear of the day, which for the past century has been suits in a range of colors from black to grey to the occasional brown.

Increasingly, however, women have made their way into elected office, bringing with them a far more profuse palette. The garments, often monochromatic and collared, are clearly descendants of the traditional suit but unconfined to the shadowy palette worn by male politicians. The array of pinks, purples, and blues is symbolic of the increasing range of backgrounds represented in congress as women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community are incrementally let into the country’s oldest boys’ club. 

secondhand sustainable blazer and home sewn lyocell pants

Given long-standing gender expectations, divergent fashion is to be expected, but some expressive fashion has been far more explicit. At the 2019 and 2020 State of the Union addresses, for example, many congresswomen wore white. This was in celebration, in 2019, of a record number of women elected to congress and then, in 2020, in celebration of a century of women’s suffrage. The 2018 SOTU fell in the early days of the #metoo movement, when public figures were being blacklisted for sexual transgressions on a near-daily basis. As such, many congresswomen opted for black attire, in somber acknowledgment of the women who suffered at the hands of the men making headlines. 

At yesterday’s inauguration, there were a number of guests wearing purple, most notably Vice President Kamala Harris in a look by Christopher John Rogers (hues also worn by Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama). This was a nod to Shirley Chisolm, but it’s hard not to see the shade, a combination of blue and red, as a metaphor for unity after an extraordinarily divisive presidential term. Perhaps Vice President Harris’s first message to the American people was her commitment to serving the full breadth of the political spectrum.

Other symbolic fashion gestures

Use of color may be the primary vehicle for political expression, but it is by no means the extent. When signing the articles of impeachment earlier this month, Nancy Pelosi opted to re-wear the outfit she wore when formally impeaching President Trump the first time. Re-wearing an outfit is a sustainable move (way to go, Nanc!). In this case, it also served as a reminder of a chronic problem in the White House, one that warranted the full force of the legislative branch. 

While singing the National Anthem at the inauguration, Lady Gaga donned a large dove of peace brooch. The pin, which Gaga referenced when tweeting a call for us to make peace with each other, offered a nice balance to her large scale Schiaparelli ensemble (designed by Daniel Roseberry). If the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman hadn’t blown me away with her words, she at least would have impressed me with her outfit. She chose the eye-catching yellow coat (Miuccia Prada) in honor of Jill Biden, who asked Gorman to participate. She also wore a caged bird ring, a gift from Oprah Winfrey and ode to fellow inaugural poet, Maya Angelou.

Kamala Harris is known for wearing pearls at momentous occasions. This choice is, at least in part, an allusion to her college sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first African American Greek-letter sorority. In solidarity, women across the country chose pearls to watch the inauguration, undoubtedly from their sofas. This small gesture celebrated the momentous occasion of finally swearing in a woman, and a person of color as U.S. V.P.

Fashion and femininity

Even more than the individual gestures, however, I am moved by the power of dress in this space. Outfit selection has traditionally been a feminine concern, not worthy of the attention of smart, powerful men. I am overjoyed to see, in a historically anti-feminine institution, a rejection of the idea that we must bury our femininity to be taken seriously.

Now, can we stop pretending that stilettos make sense?