Women have traditionally been chastised for their attire on political stages. This examination may be traced back to 1917, when Jeannette Rankin became the first female member of Congress. The public servant was described as “thoroughly feminine” by a nationally recognised newspaper, who noted her passion for French heels and moving images. Although a seemingly innocuous description, it was typical of the attention given to female politicians at the time—an examination of their dress rather than a record of significant contributions. The media’s fashion focus, whether disguised as flattery or a more honest judgement, is frequently used to disparage women in important positions.

Among the many female political figures to define their tenure through unwavering advocacy and style, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s fashion choices were both complemented and criticized. For her first official photo, the attorney and author’s decision to sport a sleeveless black dress was branded disrespectful, and the dress itself informal and off-season. Even after being relieved of her role, Obama received backlash for her love of luxury fashion. In 2018, she sported a pair of glittering Balenciaga boots on her book tour for bestselling memoir Becoming, a move considered controversial because of the footwear’s hefty price tag and flashy appearance. Nonetheless, she shunned the entitlement of the public to scrutinize her purchasing habits, voicing to co-host Sarah Jessica Parker “now, I’m free to do whatever.” Hillary Clinton’s spectrum of vibrant  was mocked by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn in 2011, who hinted that the figure must be questioning her gender because she adopted pants as part of her political uniform. The comment echoed an unspoken rule that persisted until the 1990s, which discouraged women from wearing the customarily masculine article on the Senate floor.

Female politicians of the last decade, thanks to the prevalence of social media and non-stop news, have faced a similar affliction. The question arises then for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris who has, thus far, appeared to bypass the nitpicking of fashion faults by the media and the public—will she be subjected to the same judgement as those before her? Aside from her historical entrance to the stage as the first female, first Black, and first South Asian vice president-elect, during which she flaunted a white Carolina Herrera pantsuit and pussy bow blouse in suffragette white, there hasn’t been much shock derived from her style choices. She has been publicly praised for her grounded sense of style. Much of her campaign attire consisted of unpretentious tailored pantsuits, a no-nonsense getup perhaps perfected during her time as an attorney. Harris’ favoring of casual footwear like All Star Chuck Taylors also reads that, despite her powerful position, she is down to earth. But as the political figure and champion of cause-oriented style positions herself permanently in the limelight, she will undoubtedly amass the usual following of admirer

Criticisms of Representative  can be likened to those faced by women in the past, specifically those in the early 1900s, who utilized fashion to garner attention and gain respect while striking for worker’s rights. As the youngest woman to be elected to Congress and a third-generation Bronxite, she is often harped on for her fashion choices being out of character—as if people expect her to wear her struggles on her sleeve rather than dress to the standard her position awards. In 2018, pundit Eddie Scarry tweeted a photo of the young congresswoman, which had been taken without her knowledge, to share with followers that her “jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Attempts to undermine Ocasio-Cortez have continued in recent time. In February, she wore a sequined number for an appearance on “The View” that was labeled a “luxe designer dress” by a New York City tabloid on Twitter. With followers rushing to her defense, Ocasio-Cortez quickly downed negative opinions of her outfit choice. The dress, which had ironically been marked down at the time of the interview, was a relatively inexpensive piece from her rented, borrowed, and thrifted wardrobe. Most recently, the progressive’s gracing of a magazine cover amassed a number of deprecatory responses on social media which centered on the couture clothing that was featured. As these cases illustrate, people often overlook the complexity of dressing female political figures. Yes, Ocasio-Cortez was wearing an expensive suit for a magazine shoot. But can we also call attention to the congresswoman’s support of a designer of color from her congressional district? And the common assumption within the fashion industry that clothes worn by subjects of editorial shoots are borrowed, not owned. It is the surface-level assumptions that prevent us from celebrating powerful women and seeing that we too, are contributing to a longstanding culture which seeks to delegitimize them.

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