Although a 64-year-old former U.S. army colonel seems an unlikely candidate to gain attention for her style choices, the response coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, did just that earlier this year.
Birx first started to attract attention from the public when she began appearing on TV at press conferences to speak about the coronavirus. Audience members took note of the fact that she wore a different neck scarf at almost every conference, and her colorful and patterned choices soon had their own Instagram page.
The internet’s fascination with Birx’s scarves serves to demonstrate the influence political women's fashion can have on the public. Its influence can be seen in its impact on the purchases of the public; the marigold Narciso Rodriguez dress worn by Michele Obama sold out within minutes of its debut at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. Fashion also works to promote their causes, express personal styles and beliefs and carry symbolic meaning beneath the fabric.
There are several trends that have been appearing in the wardrobes of women in the political sphere. Monochrome outfits, for example, have frequently appeared over the past several years. Recently, Jill Biden wore a navy dress with a matching navy mask and heels at the Democratic presidential debate in Cleveland, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wore a monochrome purple power suit when accepting her democratic nomination.
Pearls are another popular fashion choice and have been for centuries. America’s original first lady, Martha Washington, wore pearl pins and a gold and pearl necklace. They were also favorites of first ladies Barbara Bush and Jacqueline Kennedy. Today, the tradition lives on in the wardrobes of Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Kamala Harris, who has become known for wearing a variety of pearl necklaces, including the multi-strand one she wore at the Democratic National Convention. Pearls have also been connected to Harris because they are a symbol of her college sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. Many women took to the polls on the day of the 2020 election donning pearls to show their support for her.
Another notable trend is the pantsuit, a staple piece that was made famous by Hillary Clinton but has since been worn by others, such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The pantsuit is often associated with the idea of “power dressing,” as are high heel pumps.
Power dressing is a style donned primarily by women in the business and political worlds to assert authority and confidence. In recent years, power dressing has become less about rejecting the need to wear more “feminine” clothes in these workplaces and more about wearing styles that express one’s personality in a professional way.
Ocasio-Cortez displayed this kind of confidence when she wore an all-white pantsuit and bright red lip color to be sworn into Congress. She received criticism for her choice of lipstick, but defended it in a tweet which cited Sonia Sotomayor’s red nail polish as an inspiration for her color.
While women in politics use power dressing to send a message that they are competent and powerful, they also use clothing pieces to communicate more specific messages to the public. This was displayed by Michelle Obama's decision to wear a necklace that spelled out "vote" in gold letters during her speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she called on American citizens to do just that.
Another tactic used to convey a message through clothing is choice of color. Ocasio-Cortez explained her decision to wear white at her confirmation was meant to honor the women involved in the suffrage movement, as white is one of the three colors used to represent them. She followed in the footsteps of women such as Shirley Chisolm, who was the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress and wore white to be sworn in to office in 1968, and Hillary Clinton, who wore white to accept the 2016 Democratic nomination.
When a politician appears on television or in the news, audience members should not only look in her policies and speeches for what she stands for, but also in her clothing. From pumps to pearls, a lot more than a woman's sense of style can be determined by the traditions and trends she chooses to follow.