This story appears in STYLECASTER’s Activism Issue, starring Jurnee Smollett. Click here for more.
If the only political fashion moments you can think of are also scenes from Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, it’s time to up your knowledge of sartorially defining moments in political history. Major male and female politicians throughout history have been defined by, praised for and (sometimes) even ridiculed for their bold fashion choices—and no, I’m not just talking about Abe Lincoln’s iconic top hat. Let’s fast-forward a little, shall we?
Of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without a shoutout to the original political style icon, Jackie O, whose oversized sunnies, scarves and pillbox hats defined an era of fashion and continue to inspire trends today. Still, that isn’t to say modern-day politicians aren’t doing their part to make statements with their sartorial tastes. Sometimes, they have no idea their outfits are perceived as bold—think President Obama’s tan suit or First Lady Michelle’s bicep-baring sleeveless shifts—and other times, they know exactly what they’re doing. I’m looking at you, RBG!
Of course, not all political fashion moments are positive and praiseworthy. Whereas red baseball caps were intended to be a symbol of Republican support, they are now all but synonymous with racism and hate. When First Lady Melania Trump let her outerwear do the talking on a trip to the U.S./Mexican border, a statement emblazoned on the back of her jacket made it clear that she simply did not care. While STYLECASTER certainly doesn’t support the aforementioned, they are, in fact, major politically weighted fashion choices, and because of this, they’ve made the list below.
Read on for 10 modern examples of major political fashion moments, from Hillary Clinton’s decades of pantsuits to AOC’s recent decision to style her protective face masks with decorative chains. Of course, in the end, it matters more what our politicians say and do than what they wear, but when their style choices are this significant, we can’t help but take note.
1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Collars
The late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg used her fashion choices to make a political statement. If you thought her decorative collars and necklaces had no meaning, think again—they were worn intentionally to feminize the very traditionally-male Supreme Court justice robes. Justice Ginsburg amassed an impressive collection of collars during her years as one of the only female justices, and even had a special collar for dissenting, as well as one for delivering the court’s majority opinion.
2. President Barack Obama’s Tan Suit
For the most part, former President Barack Obama was a fairly understated dresser, so it’s no surprise a patterned tie or change in suit was enough to make headlines. In particular, I’m referring to Obama’s decision to don a tan summer suit during a live press conference regarding the military’s response to ISIS in Syria.
Plenty of Obama supporters looked approvingly on the President’s ensemble, but many others considered the light-colored summer suit to be too casual given the conference’s serious subject matter. “There’s no way, I don’t think, any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday. I mean, you have the world watching,” said Representative Peter King of New York, who claimed the fashion faux pas was downright unpresidential.
The “Obama Tan Suit Controversy” even has its own Wikipedia page. Yep, it was THAT big of a deal.
3. Michelle Obama’s Sleeveless Dresses
Navy, black or even tan, Obama was almost always spotted in some kind of suit—it was his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, who had the ability to be a little more creative with her wardrobe. Still, conservatives often criticized Mrs. Obama for her decision to wear sleeveless shifts, which they deemed inappropriate for formal affairs.
But many also praised Obama not only for being a risk-taker when it came to fashion, but also for always looking polished and put-together, regardless of whether or not her (toned AF) arms were on display. Now that her FLOTUS duties have ceased, Obama continues to explore innovative, trend-setting fashion choices, and remains a style icon to many.
4. Hillary Clinton’s Colorful Pantsuits
If ever a female politician was known for her signature uniform, it’s Hillary Clinton and her array of colored pantsuits. In fact, I’d argue the only person with a comparative collection might be Queen Elizabeth II and her own rainbow of ensembles, although she always opts for a skirt suit over classic trousers.
Clinton has been wearing pantsuits for quite some time, and in her book What Happened, she provided some insight as to why. She writes that the pantsuit makes her feel “professional and ready to go,” and that having a uniform helps her fit in with male politicians.
Most importantly, her suits (while colorful) were subdued enough that her fashion choices didn’t distract from her overall purpose. In her book, she writes: “A uniform was also an anti-distraction technique: since there wasn’t much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead.”
5. MAGA Hats
Given his background in business, it’s no surprise President Donald Trump knew the power of some good merch. Made popular during his 2016 campaign, the bright red hats bearing the phrase “Make America Great Again” have become clear identifiers of Trump supporters nationwide. While at one point Trump and his team were accused of sourcing these hats from China, it was confirmed that the official campaign merchandise is in fact made in the USA.
6. The Women’s March Pussyhats
If the thought of a MAGA hat turns you off, there’s a high likelihood you opted for a pussyhat instead. The Pussyhat Project was founded by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman in 2016 as a social movement dedicated to raising awareness about women’s issues, and the hat itself was meant to be a symbol of support for women’s rights and political resistance. At the 2017 Women’s March, hundreds of attendees wore homemade pink knit pussyhats, which served as a sharp contrast to Trump’s red MAGA caps.
7. The House Democratic Women’s Caucus White-Out
If you thought fashion didn’t play a role in 2019’s State of the Union, you must have missed the part where the entirety of The House Democratic Women’s Caucus showed up in all white. The white-out was an homage to the suffragette movement of the early 20th century, and a message to their supporters that these women would not stop fighting for women’s rights.
“The DWC is leading Democratic members in wearing suffragist white to send a strong, unified message of persistence in fighting for the people,” read an official DWC statement reported by TIME.
8. Melania Trump’s “I Don’t Care” Jacket
While some political fashion choices, like the DWC’s white-out, were intended to show solidarity and support, others showed the exact opposite. Who could forget Melania Trump’s decision to wear a Zara jacket with the words “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” printed across the back while en route to visit detained immigrant children at the United States/Mexican border. The bold statement and harsh words shocked many, and an organic wave of “I Really DO Care” merch followed as the country’s rebuttal.
9. Kamala Harris’s Converse
Not since Michelle Obama’s glittering gold Balenciaga boots has a political figure’s footwear caused so much excitement! When Harris deplaned in Milwaukee in early September wearing a pair of classic black Converse low-rise sneakers, her fans went wild for her practical, relatable choice of kicks.
Harris has also been spotted wearing Timberlands while on the campaign trail, so she knows a thing or two about comfortable, stylish footwear—after all, you can’t expect this woman to keep up with her busy schedule while running around in heels 24/7, can you?
Harris’s sister even tweeted that the Vice Presidential Nominee has multiple pairs of Chuck Taylors, and Harris shouted the shoes out in a tweet of her own, writing “Laced up and ready to win.”
10. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Mask Chains
Prior to the pandemic, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez used bold red lipstick and hoop earrings to show off her modern (and hella fashion-forward) stance. Now that her signature lip is regularly covered with a protective face mask (thank you for wearing one, AOC!), she’s found a new way to make a style statement: the mask chain.
AOC has been spotted rocking a thick gold chain with a myriad of masks over the past few months, and her commitment to keeping others safe while looking stylish is certainly symbolic of her overall desire to make our country a better place to live.