When Washington Examiner reporter, Eddie Scarry, posted a photograph of congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last week with the words, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles,” just days after she had remarked on the financial challenges of moving to DC and preparing for her new government role, the backlash was swift. Scarry was accused of “creeping” by posting a photo snapped without the subject’s knowledge and misogyny for referring to her as a “girl.” But the reporter’s speculation on how she spends her money along with judgment on her physical appearance just happened to cover the two areas in which historically men have exerted control over women. It was Scarry’s look that was not a good one.
A September profile in Interview magazine also returned to haunt Ocasio-Cortez in the days prior to Scarry’s post when her critics expressed outrage at the 650 dollar heels and high fashion items the young lawmaker had been styled in––all on loan to the magazine, of course, and returned after the photoshoot. But on the day she was snapped from behind, this newcomer to the corridors of power had chosen to wear a tailored black jacket and matching kneelength skirt, her hair tied back, a coat draped over her arm, and a roomy tote on her shoulder. She had followed the corporate manual for business attire to a T, without adding any adornment or personal flourishes. While her policies might indeed buck convention, her appearance was as conventional as it gets, practically a uniform, and the message was clear: “This is not about me. I am here to serve.” But for some, the very fact that she was dressed for business, and walking along that particular hallway, was as threatening a sight as they could imagine.
While Scarry’s intention was to undermine her position and reinforce the suspicion that someone like her doesn’t belong––a triple threat, she is a millennial, a woman of color, and a self-identifying democratic socialist––it backfired, and he deleted his post. But he had inadvertently done more good than harm as it has amplified a larger essential conversation.
The Politics of Pants
Women have been showing up looking polished and professional on a budget since time began and in that respect Ocasio-Cortez is every woman beginning a new job. Before there was Rent the Runway, ebay, Poshmark, or thredUP there were clearance racks, outlets, consignment stores. But what women have found trickier to navigate is how to align their gender with ambition. Can a woman be feminine and formidable? Should they downplay pretty to be powerful? Hillary Clinton has endured thirty years of lambasting first for her stiff flouncy dresses and hair scrunchies, then for her panoply of Pantone-colored pant suits. When Barack Obama told Vanity Fair in 2014 that he wore the same suit everyday because he had too many other decisions to make, it was accepted. Focusing her energies on bigger fish to fry wasn’t a luxury afforded Clinton whose clothing choices were questioned as much as her policies, and during her 2016 presidential campaign meme creators thrived solely on ridiculing her look. Perhaps as a small power grab, she currently lists “pantsuit aficionado” on her Twitter bio.
In 2008, Sarah Palin, running mate on John McCain’s presidential bid, was vilified for reportedly spending 150,000 dollars on her campaign wardrobe leading to the LA Times labeling her a “pampered princess.” Necklines, hemlengths, decoration, color, sheen, all everyday properties of clothing, undergo forensic scrutiny on the backs of powerful women. And the media gleefully pursues all opportunities to record for posterity when their clothing choices betray them as they set about trying to be taken seriously, the “gotcha” moments particularly rewarding if the women are wearing “feminine” items such as dresses or V-necks or anything with an undone button. “Wardrobe malfunctions” of Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge seem particularly popular, although athletes such as Serena Williams also feature––and how dare she wear a black catsuit onto the hallowed courts of the French Open?
Fashion plates need not apply
Projecting power through discreet attire has been a form of personal branding for female disruptors going back centuries. In 1851, social reformer and feminist, Amelia Bloomer, slid a pair of oriental-style pants underneath her skirt for what she described as reasons of “health, comfort, and usefulness,” a silhouette which was only taken up by fashion designer Paul Poiret some fifty years later. Health and comfort in the form of preventing postnatal blood clots were behind Williams’s controversial choice of tennis attire. Women of the 1920’s Suffragette movement gained the vote while donning trousers, but their appearance and that of Angela Merkel’s today vary only minimally. Margaret Thatcher in the 80s opted for an approachable-looking knee-length skirt of identical cut to Ocasio-Cortez’s, and added a string of pearls, but otherwise the markers of masculine mimicry were in place: tailored jacket, neutral colors, immoveable hair. Although these females could be considered image makers they have not gone down in history as style icons. Indeed London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses one of the largest fashion collections in the world, rejected an offer to exhibit Thatcher’s wardrobe because it fell outside the remit of “fashionable dress.”
But here’s to a new era of politics in which women occupy more seats of power than ever before, when style will no longer have to be sidelined in favor of substance. As Nike put it, in support of Serena Williams, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.” Accepting that women can enjoy fashion and foster radical societal change? Now that would be progress.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Instagram account; Wikimedia Commons Photograph of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Socks the Cat: 12/13/1995, White House Photograph Office From: Series: Photographs Relating to the Clinton Administration, compiled 01/20/1993 - 01/20/2001 Collection WJC-WHPO: Photographs of the White House Photograph Office (Clinton Administration), 01/20/1993 - 01/20/2001.Amelia Bloomer in her original costume 1851 contrasted with bloomers of 1895, internet Archive Book Images - https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14761086411/ Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/plainhometalkabo00foot/plainhometalkabo00foot#page/n130/mode/1up