This is PoliFits: A new series by NBN writers Grace Deng and Meher Yeda about the intersection of fashion and politics. Every so often we’ll dish out our opinions on the best – and the worst – outfits in U.S. political history.
In political fashion, it’s not just about the clothes.
In 1886, Frances Folsom Cleveland became the youngest wife of a sitting president at age 21. She was young and hot, but the Women’s Christian Temperance Union didn’t think she should feel that way. Cleveland was known for wearing low-cut necklines and sleeveless dresses, spurring a petition from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union calling for an end to her “scandalous” outfits. As any of us would and should, she ignored the petition.
Over a century later, women in politics are still heavily criticized for wearing “revealing” clothing. Take Michelle Obama, for example – her sleeveless dresses attracted global controversy, with one Iranian newspaper even photoshopping cap sleeves onto her Oscars gown.
While there have been fashion controversies around male politicians – President Obama infamously wore a tan suit that resulted in wall-to-wall coverage on Fox News – most men in politics just rotate through the same red, black and blue suits without causing an uproar. However, women in politics have figured out how to weaponize fashion for their political messages, using unnecessary media attention on their outfits to their advantage.
But do these clothes actually represent progress or are they just another example of performative posturing?
In this first installment of PoliFits, we’re taking you through some of the most controversial political outfits of the last decade and deciding whether they’re #girlboss or actually game-changing.
We’re starting with Hillary Clinton, the ultimate #girlboss. Everyone knows about her multicolored pantsuits, but not everyone knows who paved the way. Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) was not only the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate – she was the first woman to wear a pantsuit on the Senate floor. Accustomed to the fairly liberal dress codes in her local area, walking into work in a pantsuit was just another day for her. After her pants broke an unofficial rule in the Senate, the dress code was amended to include “coordinated pantsuits.”
While Moseley Braun didn’t think much of her pantsuits, Clinton’s were a purposeful choice. Pantsuits allowed the former Secretary of State to assimilate into a male-dominated space. In her 2017 memoir What Happened, she wrote she “thought it would be good to do what male politicians do and wear more or less the same thing every day.” Pantsuits also protected her from perverts – as First Lady, she was photographed up her skirt multiple times.
Cute, functional, empowering. What else could you want from your clothes?
Up next, we have Melania Trump and her infamous Forever 21-esque jacket sporting the phrase, “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”
Trump wore the jacket on a trip to visit migrant children at the Mexican border separated from their parents, eliciting outrage from both the public and the media. Her communications chief brushed off the outcry, claiming it was “just a jacket.” It’s not the first time someone from the Trump administration has done something blatantly disrespectful, only to claim it was a joke or there wasn’t anything behind it.
Trump later claimed it was a message to the media, saying that they were “obsessed” with her fashion choices. Much like her husband and his administration, she showed that the cruelty was always the point.
In what is probably the weirdest political fashion request by modern standards, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was expressly warned against wearing red nail polish during her confirmation hearing with Congress.
Sotomayor was advised to wear neutral nail polish by the Obama administration, which she complied with – at first. On the day of the White House celebration of her confirmation, she held up her freshly manicured fire truck-red nails and told Obama to take a look. Obama reportedly chuckled and said she had been warned not to wear red nails.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) later said her iconic red lip was inspired by Sotomayor’s manicure and her refusal to pacify others or change who she was to fit some preconceived notion of what a politician should look like.
While her nails weren’t revolutionary, Sotomayor’s small act of autonomy resonated with women – especially women of color – whose bodies are policed by racist and sexist ideas of what is seen as “professional.”
Although TikTok may have popularized the colorful costume wig trend, no one does it better than Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Sinema often wears $12.99 wigs in order to promote staying home during the pandemic, providing an alternative to going to the hair salon.
On social media, the photo of her holding the Bible while Vice President Mike Pence swears in Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) quickly spread, as Sinema is an openly bisexual woman and liberals saw her purple wig and zebra coat as an implicit middle finger to Pence, who is well-known for his homophobic and socially conservative views.
It’s not really #girlboss or game-changing – but it is a vibe, and we can all appreciate that.
While Democratic congresswomen wore white at the 2020 State of the Union Address to honor the suffragette movement, their choice of white only tells part of the story. The common misconception that suffragettes only wore white came from black and white photos, but suffragettes actually wore a combination of white, purple and yellow, each representing one aspect of the movement. Purple stood for loyalty, white for purity and yellow for hope.
Ignoring the full symbolism of each color honestly kind of parallels the way Democratic policies aren’t truly intersectional. We’re not condemning every congresswoman who showed up, but attempting to pay homage to the suffragette movement without acknowledging the real history seems a little #girlboss to us.
Furthermore, progressive representatives and self-appointed members of the Squad Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Presley (D-MA) chose not to attend the State of the Union address in protest. Though fellow Squad member Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted out that there are many ways to protest, what good is a performative protest when you are the ones who could actually be making real change?
Still, the moment sparked conversation, which is something.
By writing about these moments, we know we’re perpetuating unnecessary media attention on what women in politics wear. However, it’s important to acknowledge how women have politicized fashion, using it to defend themselves from criticism or to criticize their opposition. We’re here to critique the message behind what they wear, not the outfit itself. (Except for Melania’s jacket. That was just ugly.)
Thumbnail graphic by Meher Yeda