The Politics of Power Dressing for Female Elected Officials in 2020 and Beyond

“Getting ready, for women, it involves so many decisions about how you’re going to present yourself to the world,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says to the mirror while putting on her makeup in a hotel bathroom in the opening scene of the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House.” “There’s kind of standard protocol for how a man running for office should dress. You either put on a suit or you put on a light-colored shirt, slacks, and you roll up your sleeves. Those are pretty much your two options.”

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Congresswomen-elects on Capitol Hill in November, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (center) of New York, who has been the center of debates on appropriate dressing for elected female officials.
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The footage was taken in 2017, when Ocasio-Cortez was still a long-shot Democratic primary hopeful as U.S. representative for New York’s 14th District. Since then, scrutiny of the congresswoman’s appearance has only grown louder. Critics have called out everything from the lipstick shade she shared with followers (after they asked her for it) to the expensive designer clothes and shoes she wore for a photo shoot — among them a muted green Gabriela Hearst double-breasted pantsuit with black satin Manolo Blahnik pumps, all of which were borrowed.

Male candidates of the past may have been grilled on whether they inhaled, had extramarital affairs or dodged the draft, but for the 29-year-old Bronx native, it was a college-era music video of her dancing in a miniskirt as an undergrad at Boston University in 2010 that opponents pointed to as Ocasio-Cortez’s skeleton in the closet.

As the 2020 democratic presidential primary gears up, it’s nearly impossible for the six-and-counting female candidates not to consider how they will present themselves in all visual manner — especially as murky, gendered issues of likeability and electability continue to swirl about them. As more women continue to take center stage today — in politics, in business and everywhere else — how should the modern era of power dressing be defined?

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her signature red lipstick and a suffragette-inspired white suit.

“It’s about owning your space. The more you [do that], the more your confidence comes across,” said Lauren Rothman, fashion consultant and author of “Style Bible: What to Wear to Work,” a D.C. local who has styled political men and women alike for election campaigns. “Statistics do show that nonverbal communication is 85 percent of the first impression.”

The idea alone of power dressing is relatively new for women. “In world historical terms, it has tended to mean the kinds of clothes worn by powerful people like kings and other royalty, and that has been problematic for women because women just haven’t had that much power,” said Valerie Steele, fashion historian, curator and director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Queen Elizabeth I had to develop a whole iconography, this idea of the Virgin Queen, to appeal to her subjects. That was deliberate.”

It wasn’t until the 1860s that high-status American women began to adopt the modern standard for men’s power dressing: the suit. Still, Steele noted, suit jackets were paired with long skirts.

Even through the 1970s, many establishments like restaurants and museums didn’t allow women in wearing pants. In 1965, New York socialite Nan Kempner was denied entry to restaurant La Côte Basque for wearing a pantsuit — and famously took off the trousers to her Yves Saint Laurent ensemble to wear the top as a minidress. “The idea of pants has been coded as masculine. And that’s one of the big reasons that women have been wanting to wear them,” said Steele.

It may not have won her the election, but Hillary Clinton single-handedly brought back the pantsuit as a totem for power dressing — and the garment has only grown more symbolic in the aftermath of 2016, with 3.3 million members remaining in the private Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, which supports women and minorities. In fashion, millennial women especially have embraced the silhouette as a coordinated look, dressing it with pumps and sneakers alike.

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Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 wearing a Ralph Laurent pantsuit.
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Yet a glance at today’s candidates and their Republican senator counterparts reveals a more varied wardrobe. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tends to favor sheath dresses, while California Sen. Kamala Harris, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar all wear skirt suits (another comeback silhouette on the runways). Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer both veer toward casual trousers with unstructured blazers or cardigans. And the Senate’s unsung hero of fashion might be West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, who shifts seamlessly from power suits and high-necked blazers to feminine florals and skirts — and wears her pearls with puffer vests.

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Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail in July 2018 wearing slide sandals and her usual easy uniform of casual separates.
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Elizabeth Warren at an Ohio campaign rally in May. The senator prefers low-heeled ankle boots for campaign appearances.
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As for the perceived power pump? For the 2020 candidates, it makes only occasional appearances. Warren has a collection of black low-block-heeled ankle boots that punctuate the senator’s unfussy, breezy presence. Gillibrand has a rotation of wedges, ballet flats and kitten heels. Harris usually sticks to black leather midheel pumps, but lately, she’s given sneakers a try.

The pump has received ample criticism in recent years for its lack of comfort and inherent constraints, but it remains by and large the default shoe for power dressing. “The pump has been a sign of erotic femininity and also a sign of post-feminist power dressing,” said Steele. “It draws on this ambiguous history and assumption that women have a sexual power and that they use that in dressing to acquire actual power. But it’s a sort of secondhand power, because it’s presumably to get the attention of a man.”

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Kamala Harris in a pantsuit and sneakers while in New York in May.
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The reigning queen of the political pump is undoubtedly Nancy Pelosi, whose stiletto heels often feel like armor — or talismans, particularly a lucky pair of lavender pumps she is known to wear for important meetings and votes. “She is such a heroine to people, and it comes with being older,” said Steele. “She has traction, and she’s able to look good while doing it.”

When the 78-year-old speaker of the House walked out of the White House after a heated meeting with President Donald Trump in December wearing nude pumps, sunglasses and a red Max Mara cocoon coat, the look garnered so much buzz that the brand decided to reissue the coat and dedicate its fall ’19 collection to it.

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with Sen. Chuck Schumer outside the White House in December. Pelosi’s Max Mara coat prompted the brand to reissue the style and dedicated its fall ’19 collection to her.
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Rothman also points to Pelosi’s high-impact dressing as a goal for all of her political clients. “When a candidate walks into the room, you’re going for a boom. That’s exactly what a successful look feels like,” she explained.

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Pelosi outside the White House in January wearing what she has deemed her “lucky” lavender suede pumps.
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But replicating the speaker’s expensive look isn’t the best recipe for everyone. Ocasio-Cortez continues to be scrutinized for appearing to dress outside of her economic capacity (during her first week in D.C., conservative blogger Eddie Scarry tweeted a shot of the congresswoman-elect’s sleek black suit, writing, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles”). In 2008, the revelation that Sarah Palin spent $150,000 on her wardrobe was a blow to John McCain’s presidential campaign.

“There has to be an authenticity and reality to the budget. If you are of the Mitt Romney type of wealth, it would be expected that you would be wearing designer clothing,” said Rothman. “However, for many candidates, that is not their authentic budget.” As more grassroots candidates gain seats in office as they did in 2018, putting together a polished but still socioeconomically appropriate wardrobe may become even more difficult for women to achieve without contradicting the messaging of working-class, of-the-people policy platforms. The double standard’s case in point? President Barack Obama’s midlevel suiting by Chicago brand Hartmarx (his signature two-button starts at $695), which drew only praise for its made-in-America patriotism.

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New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R) with Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit prompted a conservative blogger to write, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”
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“What this comes [down to] is the American anxiety of whether fashion is just for elites or for everyone,” said Steele. “The French and Italians have no problem with it; it’s part of promoting the national economy. Americans have always been very ambivalent about fashion — it’s part of the Puritan heritage.”

Europe’s runways also haven’t been entirely accommodating. Aside from artistic director Clare Waight Keller’s Givenchy fall ’19 collection of smartly tailored suits, sharp-shouldered overcoats and a starting point for what a work-friendly platform could look like, much of the fashion world remains rooted in youth-focused streetwear and magpie dressing. When stylist and costume designer Kemal Harris started research on the season finale of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” the lack of professional garments on the runways led her to design mostly custom looks for actress Robin Wright’s lead character, President Claire Underwood. “That high-waisted normcore on the runways just wasn’t going to translate. I wanted her to be taken seriously but still look feminine,” said Harris.

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Robin Wright as President Claire Underwood on “House of Cards” in a custom suit dress by costume designer Kemal Harris.
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Using a mannequin of Wright’s measurements, the designer worked with a Brooklyn tailor to create a wardrobe that was very fitted but also rooted in historical references of power dressing, researching past presidents and even military leaders. “One thing I kept coming back to was women in the military during World War II, especially in the Navy,” she said. “I thought the naval officers were so chic, dare I say. They had longer skirts past the knee, epaulets and a piping detail that was all so tasteful.”

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Robin Wright with Diane Lane in the season finale of “House of Cards.”
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Those historical references manifested themselves in pencil-fit suit skirts and jackets with built-in belt and pocket stitching, plus longer sleeves accented with official White House cufflinks. On-foot were patent Christian Louboutin stilettos, which amplified Underwood’s cutthroat and resilient tendencies. Like her real-life peers, the character also battled issues of “likeability.”

When asked if there was anything 2020 candidates might take away from the fictional character’s style, Harris declined to comment. “During the last election, I got endless calls to comment on Hillary’s wardrobe. I said I would [give a quote] if I could [also] discuss her male counterparts. No one was talking about what the men were wearing.”

Perhaps the ultimate definition of modern power dressing for women is not having to talk about it at all.

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