How Politicians Are Using Fashion To Make A Point

As a new generation of female power brokers emerges, Charlie Gowans-Eglinton says what they wear is no afterthought

Democratic Representatives from New York, Grace Meng, Carolyn Maloney, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nydia Velázquez, and Yvette Clarke, pose for a photo in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo / Getty Images

On Saturday, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walked in the women’s march in Manhattan. She wore a navy belted coat, navy trousers and tan ankle boots, and accessorised with red lipstick and a pair of hoop earrings.

I can almost feel the collective bristling at my use of accessorised. Fashion commentary on a political figure tends to spark anger — isn’t it reductive to talk about a female politician’s shoes? Or anti-feminist to notice her earrings?

No. Because political credibility and an interest in fashion aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s a drum that fashion journalists have been banging for years — and yet, the perception that being seen to take an interest in fashion somehow diminishes a woman’s power remains.

READ: Can Fashion Be Political - And Politics Ever Be Fashionable? 

Fashion is a tool to be used; in the right hands, it’s a superpower. Fashion can make you appear in control, prepared, at ease — an outfit can communicate age, health, wealth, education.

There’s a reason why the sports jacket that British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn wore on Remembrance Sunday made headlines, or why Donald Trump tells photographers to make him look “nice and handsome and thin” — male or female, presentation is an important device at a politician’s disposal and to ignore that is at best naive, at worst arrogant.

In these heightened political times — and at what feels like a moment of change for women — fashion is being deployed with greater tact than ever.


After winning a no-confidence vote after that disastrous Brexit deal defeat — one of the most high-pressured moments of Theresa May’s career — all eyes were on her as she walked up to that lectern in front of No 10. May chose a bright blue suit, pearl-studded kitten heels, chunky silver jewellery and rose-pink lipstick. She held her dossier with freshly painted nails — not neutral but Barbie pink.

READ: Nothing Else Melania Trump Wears Will Ever Matter Again

May has faced ridicule for her leopard-print shoes, and the $1900 leather trousers that sparked “trousergate”. So why does she persevere? May could have played it safe.

But if the British prime minister had appeared in a shapeless grey suit and court shoes with chewed, unpainted nails, then it wouldn’t have made her position stronger — more likely, it would have been used to illustrate a defeatist attitude, a PM on the back foot. May’s polished look was tactic: Rome (or rather, her Brexit deal) may burn, but she appears in control. An outfit like this might even make her feel more in control.


Ocasio-Cortez wore red lipstick and hoops on the day that she was sworn in (one of a record 127 women who joined the US Congress), tweeting that they were “inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-coloured nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red.”

For her first floor speech, Ilhan Omar — the first member of Congress to wear a hijab — chose one in bright red. An 181-year-old rule against headwear in the chamber was changed to allow her to do so — and her choice made sure the change didn’t go unnoticed.

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It’s a power play that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, relies on, using colour to assert her dominance. For a photograph with the new committee heads this month, Mrs Pelosi stood out — how can your eye not be drawn to the woman in the magenta suit when everyone else is in navy or black?

The rust-red coat that she wore to the White House in December sent a message: she came across as outspoken and unapologetic before she even opened her mouth. Her six-year-old MaxMara coat provoked such a big reaction that the brand now plans to reissue it.


In sleek shirt dresses and tailored coats, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey is dressing for the job she wants — Mrs May’s. New Zealand's own prime minister Jacinda Ardern chose a kakahu (traditional Maori cloak) to honour Maori at a Commonwealth dinner at Buckingham Palace. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, wore a sleek black evening suit to hold her own on a film festival red carpet; mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, donned Chanel tweed to turn on the Champs Elysées’ Christmas lights.

In an aesthetically obsessed world, fashion isn’t an afterthought. A female politician who chooses her shoes carefully isn’t showing herself up — she’s using all of the tools at her disposal.

— The Daily Telegraph 

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