Why fashion shaming women in power is losing its power


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?

Why fashion shaming women in power is losing its power

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

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