Fashion Is Political — Should Politics Be Fashionable?

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.
In the last six months, a trend has emerged: The wardrobes of Washington, D.C.’s most powerful women are inspiring the type of frenzied fashion interest that was previously reserved for celebrities or style influencers. After Kamala Harris wore Timberland boots (with pearls!), search for the shoes increased 376% week-on-week according to Lyst, a search fashion platform, while demand for the brand rose by 25% compared to the week before. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed her Telfar bag on Instagram, searches for the New York-based brand also spiked 163%, and demand for its hard-to-get shopping bags increased 270%. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is this week's most powerful influencer,” the Lyst report citing those numbers read.
The fashion platform is not the first to use the word “influencer” to describe a political figure. In April, The New York Times ran an article titled “Cuomo, Fauci, Birx: The New Influencers,” in which writer Vanessa Friedman talked about the public’s then-fascination with White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx’s silk scarves — they even earned their own Instagram account early in the pandemic. More recently, Elle published an article, “How Politicians Became 2020's Biggest Fashion Influencers,” leaving no doubt that political leaders have become figures to watch for sartorial choices. It’s not entirely surprising; fashion and politics go hand-in-hand. In fact, the statement “fashion is political” has been used so often — including, recently, when referencing Nancy Pelosi’s matching masks and pantsuits —  it has become a cliche. But lately the question has become: Should politics be fashionable? And: What does it mean to cast political figures as fashion influencers?
While this may be a fairly new phenomenon when it comes to the fashion of female senators and congresswomen, people have long looked to the First Lady to provide style inspiration. In the case of women like Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama, who were already considered fashionable prior to moving into the White House, their time in the D.C. spotlight made them bona fide style icons. While the former inspired a distinctive fashion aesthetic that, to this day, inspires women and fashion brands, the latter left an enviable trail of receipts from clothing that routinely sold out after she wore it, regardless of whether it was a $2,000 designer dress or a $100 J.Crew cardigan. (The Michelle Obama effect continues to this day, despite it being almost four years since the family left the White House: At the 2020 Democratic National Convention, after Obama wore a necklace spelling out “VOTE,” the brand ByChari was inundated with orders for the style.) 
It’s notable, too, that the public has already expressed interest in the fashion of Dr. Jill Biden, who’s neither a political figure in an official capacity nor (yet) a First Lady. After Dr. Biden wore a pair of Stuart Weitzman boots that read “VOTE” while joining her husband in voting early in the Delaware state primary election, search for the $700 (£540) style spiked 488% in just 24 hours. (Even further removed from the two groups is TV’s Savannah Guthrie whose pink suit — that wasn’t THAT pink suit — also got a lot of attention during a town hall with Trump; it was unlike anything she has worn for any other appearance over the years.)
Until the latter part of the 20th century, women in politics weren’t thought to be trendsetters at all; they traditionally wore demure, ladylike wardrobes meant to blend in and not stand out. In contrast, women working in politics today (AOC, Harris, etc.) are breaking barriers and fighting for change in a system that has long tried to prevent them from even entering. And in a battle of that nature, it’s more efficient to be in a pantsuit, a pair of sneakers or utilitarian boots, and a giant tote (one that could fit a reusable water bottle, as well as a binder and a notebook) than heels or a clutch. Not to mention, relatable to all the other working women watching them today.
Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images.
As we continue to observe their style choices, the question — should we look to political figures for fashion tips? — comes up again. On the one hand, it is reductive to obsess over what female political leaders wear — not to mention distracting from the (important) messages they’re sending with their actions and words. Rather than looking at clothes or the inside of their bags, we should be studying their values and policies. On the other hand, fashion has long and frequently been used as a weapon by men — to dismiss women as frivolous and incapable of making important decisions, since they’re so caught up with their appearance. We might think we’re past the stereotype, but, just last week, AOC was attacked by conservatives for wearing what some (with a lot of time on their hands) have estimated to be $14,000 (£10,800) worth of clothing for, wait for it, a Vanity Fair shoot. Yes, AOC was attacked for wearing expensive clothes on a shoot for the likes of which it’s standard to be lent clothes from designers. (Earlier this year, she also found herself defending a $500 (£387) dress that she wore for a televised appearance.) Is it really still hard to believe that women can get things done in the government — and wear a great outfit while doing it? The answer is, of course, no, but some people will do anything to distract from the actual issues at hand.
For many, it has been inspiring on an aesthetic level to see Pelosi embrace masks and make them into a fashion statement — which has since become a common sight on the political stage — before many of us discovered the fun of shopping for a face mask that could express our personal style. It has been even more fun to see Harris running around in her go-to Converse sneakers. Who hasn’t owned a pair of Chuck Taylors in their life? Who hasn’t worn them when they needed to be on their feet all day long? And, personally, it was downright thrilling to see AOC flaunting her shopping tote from Telfar. Like many people in August, I pre-ordered the bag that I, sadly, won’t get until this winter. (For a brief moment, I wished I got it in oxblood like AOC, rather than the bright red I went with.)
This might seem like a small thing, but the significance goes even deeper than just covetable style. Not only does the designer behind the eponymous label, Telfar Clemens, hail from the congresswoman’s district, but he has, since the beginning of the brand, pushed for inclusivity in fashion, something that’s still severely lacking in the industry. With that in mind, there is something powerful when one of the most progressive women in politics unofficially endorses one of the most progressive brands in fashion — it’s a sign of real hope when two leaders, who work in spheres that have actively resisted change and often refused to evolve with the times, join forces to support one another. 
Of course, one can’t project their values onto someone just because they have the same taste in handbags or get-stuff-done shoe preference. But — as Friedman wrote in the NYT’s article about the appeal of Dr. Fauci’s, Dr. Birx’s, and Governor Cuomo’s clothing early on in the pandemic — “when the patterns of life are unrecognisable, the familiar becomes a source of comfort.” It’s especially true when it’s someone whose values you seem to align with. But while I still have a hard time calling politicians influencers — for one, I like to (admittedly, very naively) believe that people in government are serving the public rather than their own personal gain; for another, we all know what happens to influencers with time — I do realise that there’s little difference in me wanting an oxblood bag just because AOC wore one, and a sweater from an independent slow-fashion brand because a similarly sustainably minded fashion influencer recommended it. So where does that leave us? Maybe, like with the politicians whose values we study before endorsing, we should make sure to look at what kind of message their clothing sends, too, before adopting it for yourself?
Personally, I can’t wait for my Telfar bag. As for the “I really don’t care, do u” Zara jacket? I won’t be buying that. 

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