It sometimes seems we focus less on the words coming out of politicians’ mouths than we do on the color of lipstick they’re wearing, how they’re cutting their hair or the fact that their tie is held together with tape.
And when it comes to the divide between how we talk about men and women’s fashion in politics, the gulf is wide.
As former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) recently told Vox, women in politics “are held to a different standard across the board” than men, meaning they also face intense scrutiny for their wardrobe choices. (Though men sometimes fall victim to the scrutiny, too.)
Despite any potential criticisms, the new class of congresswomen ― also the most diverse class ― appear to be taking the public’s obsession with their appearances and running with it.
For example, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) became the first lawmaker to wear a hijab on the floor of Congress, as a headwear ban implemented in the 1800s was set aside for her. Omar has been vocal about her plans to end the headwear ban for good.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) wore a thobe ― a traditional Palestinian dress ― for her swearing-in, inspiring a social media campaign meant to “to educate others about [Palestinian] culture while we celebrate [Tlaib’s] achievement.”
Then there’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the youngest congresswoman in history who’s already faced plenty of criticism for her clothing choices (among other things). She’s clearly aware people won’t stop talking about her wardrobe ― she’s also commented on it herself ― but she’s using her style choices to help shed light on more important things, most notably the history of women in politics.
For Ocasio-Cortez, fashion is more than what she wears. It’s fast becoming a tool for her to spread her message. And as Cher ― yes, Cher ― rightfully noted of the politician, she can “put on lipstick and kick ass at the same time.”
The music icon isn’t wrong.
Take, for instance, the night of her primary debate.
In a June debate with Joe Crowley, the powerful, longtime incumbent she was given virtually no chance of upending for the Democratic nomination, Ocasio-Cortez squared off against him about issues like the financial challenges faced by the working class. But Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native, also sparked interest in a topic that wasn’t exactly a part of her platform: her lip color.
The shade was a bold red, and people ― according to Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account ― were really into it. So, the now-congresswomen leaned in and gave the people what they wanted.
“I GOT YOU. It’s Stila ‘Stay All Day’ Liquid in Beso,” she wrote on Twitter. (You can buy the lipstick for $22.)
At the end of that month she defeated Crowley in a stunning upset that gave her a national profile.
Then there was the white suit she wore for her swearing-in.
Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into office on Jan. 3 and wore a crisp, white suit for the occasion. In her words, the outfit choice was an homage to the “women who paved the path before [her], and for all the women yet to come.”
As HuffPost previously reported, a number of women have worn white at key moments in their political careers as a display of solidarity with the activists, like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, of the women’s suffrage movement.
Chisholm (D-N.Y.), who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to Congress, wore white when she was sworn in. Hillary Clinton wore all-white when she accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. And a group of female Democratic lawmakers wore all-white to stage a silent protest during President Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress in 2017.
And we can’t forget the gold hoops.
Ocasio-Cortez really loves her gold hoops ― which of course, are more than just gold hoops. She has sported the earrings on multiple occasions, including the day she took office.
In a tweet she posted on Jan. 4, Ocasio-Cortez said she wore hoops and her now-signature red lipstick in honor of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another product of the Bronx.
“Lip+hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “She kept her red.”
“Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman,” she added in the tweet.
There’s no denying Ocasio-Cortez is aware of the public influence she (and her wardrobe) has at the moment. And judging by the choices she’s made so far, it’s safe to say that as long as people are talking about what she wears, she’ll be serving up looks imbued with political context.