In 2011, Tim Gunn of the television program Project Runway attacked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits with the comment, “Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender!” The 2016 presidential election cycle gave rise to countless wardrobe comments specifically directed at female candidates. Secretary Clinton was not the first, nor will she be the last, to undergo this kind of pointed criticism. Historically, female politicians have received, and unfortunately will continue to receive, unwanted comments and unsolicited advice about their wardrobe choices. Conversely, how often do you hear the news talking about the president’s choice of tie or a male senator’s suit color?
If women’s appearances were going to be scrutinized so much, they realized they might as well make it work for them. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, I want to showcase the powerful women who have used society’s disproportionate focus on their appearance to further agendas, make political statements, and drive change.
Our first example is the women of the 115th United States Congress. At President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, Democratic women came together wearing white in solidarity for women. Historically, white has been a rally color for women everywhere. Suffragettes wore white to represent purity and to assure that their protests were non-aggressive. When asked about the white outfits, Representative Lois Frankel of Florida said it was a “declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned rights.” Interestingly, Ivanka and Melania both wore head-to-toe black outfits.
The sea of white at the State of the Union address was a continuation of the trend of women wearing white for hundreds of years. Utah women are no exception here. In the mid-1800s, Alice Merrill Horne was passionate about clean air. As a stay-at-home mother, she spent her days in the kitchen cooking next to an open coal burning stove. She knew there must be a cleaner, healthier, more energy-efficient way to live. One morning, she and her best friend put on white dresses, rolled a coal-burning stove to the corner of the street and baked. They baked all day long, and by the end of the day, their white beautiful dresses were covered in soot and dirt. These women in white dresses became a stunning visual that brought attention to the importance of clean air.
On February 7, 2019, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about her Green New Deal in Congress. Her bold plan includes cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and ensuring job security for all Americans. When she spoke about this new deal, she stood behind a podium in a field near the Capitol wearing a green blazer. While maybe a subtle move, the green blazer stood as a rallying cry to create a national conversation about climate change.
In 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, she gave a gracious concession speech. In that speech, she wore a pantsuit (in classic Hillary fashion) with purple lapels and a purple shirt under her blazer. These deep purple accents weren’t just trendy, they were symbolic. The color purple stands for dignity and has represented dignity through the ages. As she spoke about rallying the country together as one, we were reminded that when you mix red and blue, you get purple. Purple is the color of bipartisanship, something Hillary focused on in her speech. Her wardrobe choice that morning signaled to Americans everywhere that the divided days of the country were gone. This was her own personal plea to everyone to remember civility and bipartisanship.
On September 24, 2018, women all across the country walked out of their schools and workplaces in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Blasey Ford came out with sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and her credibility was questioned. As a quasi-extension of #MeToo, women wore all black in solidarity. This action spread the message of women supporting women and believing survivors.
Women have always found a way to push past the walls society places them in. The hyperfocus on appearance is no different. This month, pay attention to the women around you and how they are fearlessly and creatively advancing causes. Pay attention to the women in the news that are gracefully fighting for equality. Pay attention to the women in your neighborhood that are teaching our society to be a little kinder. And most of all, pay attention to what they’re wearing, because you just might find that there is purpose and meaning behind every detail.
Latest posts by Jayne Edwards (see all)
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- There is a Place for You Here - December 10, 2018