Being a politician is almost like playing cards. You have to be fully alert the entire time. Don’t show your nervousness. Make sure people think that you know what you’re doing. Plan ahead of time. Do the smartest moves you possibly can given your resources. This is why politicians use everything they have around them to convey messages to us, and this everything includes their clothes.
When you see people walking in the street, you can get a general idea of the person. Whether they are working in business casual attire or wearing a pair of joggers and a hoodie ready for the morning hike, our clothes communicate several messages to the people around us.
So here are some of the moments in U.S. politics, where fashion communicated very carefully crafted messages from the politicians to us, the audience.
Kamala Harris Wears Sneakers
Vice President Kamala Harris has been a pioneer in many subjects. First African American, Asian American, and the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history. In her path towards achieving this goal, Harris challenged the systemic racism and inequality that still are prevalent in public offices. Media, voters, opponents, and people from her own party were watching every move and listening to every word she said, almost as if they wanted her to fail.
In August 2020, when Joe Biden elected her to be the vice-presidential nominee, Harris went all hands on deck. She visited multiple cities in one day, delivered multiple speeches, and attended a bunch of press conferences, interviews, and media outlets to present herself as the ideal candidate to be Vice President of the United States.
During this fascinating yet exhausting journey, there was something about Harris that captured a lot of media attention. It wasn’t her perspective on the pandemic, nor health insurance, nor education. It was her shoes.
Kamala Harris has been using sneakers in outdoor events, rallies, and campaigns for a while. But it was until the race narrowed down and the elections were closer that she started to get all this media attention literally from head to toe.
What do sneakers say about Kamala Harris?
The answer is simple. What do sneakers say about anyone? Our footwear choices are determined by several factors, including the activities that we have planned for the day. If you’re going to a gala, you’d probably wear a pair of elegant pumps. If you’re going to the beach, most likely you’ll prefer a pair of sandals to let your feet feel the ocean breeze. And what about sneakers? Sneakers are a casual type of footwear that people prefer when they are active and moving constantly. Not necessarily as professional athletes, but more like a busy day full of errands when you want to keep it casual and be comfortable.
By wearing sneakers, Kamala Harris was communicating that she is an active person who is constantly moving. Against the stereotypical figure of a female candidate who wears high heels and needs help to get out of the car, Harris introduced herself as an agile, savvy, and strong person, which are characteristics that help idealize a vice president.
Nancy Pelosi’s Impeachment Dress
The internet is an enormous album of memories from our world’s history and the significant events we’ve lived and experienced. It is here for our reference, for us to expand our knowledge, or simply to remember certain moments of history and refresh our memories.
During the second impeachment of the 45th president of the United States, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi showed up in the same dress she wore months earlier, during the first impeachment of the same president.
But why does this matter? Why did people react to Pelosi’s dress and became national news? Why did memes that say “Pelosi has an official impeachment look, and I love it” went viral?
There are different ways to read this message. Some people argue that wearing the same dress for both impeachments gives the message: “And yet, here we are again.” after a series of controversies and messages from the 45th President against democracy that suggested segregation, violence, and hate.
The truth is, this was a great move from Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she started a conversation with a lot of emphasis on repetition. Wearing a nice black dress two times is cool and chic but being impeached for the second time is quite awkward and shameful. Those are the politics of fashion.
Barack Obama’s Jeans
One of the many challenges that politicians face is their continuous need to remind everyone that they are humans and not machines with answers to every question.
How do you show that while delivering speeches, communicating with national and international people with authority, and being involved in matters that concern the entire population?
Clothes are a great channel of communication, and they are one of the many tools that politicians, and any person whatsoever, use to communicate messages implicitly.
Barack Obama arrived at the White House in the middle of a financial crisis that was aggravating daily like a snowball. The pressure he handled to deal with this crisis, the U.S. foreign affairs, and the health bill that he desperately wanted to get passed in his first year in office was certainly a big challenge.
This is why Obama’s jeans convey such an important message. He’s certainly not the first nor the last U.S. president to wear jeans in a public appearance. But dressing like any citizen with a pair of jeans and a polo shirt is an implicit yet clear reminder that he is a human with a personal life. He has a family, goes on vacation with them, and is an emotional being. This personal connection helped Obama connect with U.S. citizens, presenting himself as a civilian with a family and casual attire.
Politicians are mortals with important job titles, living their lives and working hard. But at some point, they have to stop for a second, look at the world around them, and remember where do they come from and who are they representing through their role.
Hillary Clinton Wears Pink.
The abbreviated description of this clothing selection would be Trojan Horse. A clever strategy to get your message across implicitly.
The Greeks used it to win a war, and Hillary Clinton used it to deliver a powerful message on feminism and gender equality.
In 1995, the 47-year-old First Lady of the United States traveled to Beijing, China, and attended the Fourth World Conference on Women by the United Nations.
She delivered one of the most important speeches of her career, speaking about women’s challenges facing several matters, including rape, abortion, and gender bias regarding access to education and healthcare.
The core message of the speech was: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. This speech was very controversial for various reasons, including the fact that she spoke out about several matters that the host country and the United States itself were facing. She also pointed out areas of opportunity to acknowledge women’s rights that are ignored in many parts of the world. It was a pivotal moment in the feminist movement and women’s impact on politics.
But what does the outfit say about her? Pink has been associated with femininity and women for generations. It is a soft color often related to tenderness. Pink is calming and suggests softness and vulnerability (Color Psychology). As red illustrates passionate love, pink frequently involves nurturing family love.
So the contrast of such a solid statement during Clinton’s speech and the softness of her clothes create a reaction in the viewer.
How would you feel if you saw Hillary Clinton speaking about women’s rights with a red suit, short hair, and a tie? Wouldn’t it feel more of an aggressive message? Especially in a conservative political context where female politicians are often labeled as “crazy” or “emotionally unstable”.
Coming from a place of kindness and nurturing love, it’s a little easier and more digestible to speak about relevant issues involving gender equality. Clinton’s Trojan Horse was her pink outfit, and her speech was her army of soldiers, ready to combat a history of gender inequality that the former First Lady faced throughout her entire career.
Clinton’s speech is still referred to as a case study in current speeches and political campaigns, using as reference such an important moment in history where politics and fashion blended smoothly and successfully.
Jackie Kennedy Inauguration Look
Every Inauguration Day marks the beginning of a new era. A new person becomes the president of the United States with a new team, new proposals, and new clothes.
In many ways, the Inauguration Ceremony marks a first impression for the first couple. They are no longer in a candidate race; they are now in a position of power, being seen by millions of people around the world who like them, dislike them or even hate them.
Back on January 20th of 1961, the Inauguration Ceremony for John F. Kennedy was the first to be seen in color television, celebrating the first U.S. leader born in the 20th century.
With so many people watching such an important event for the first time, every detail was thoroughly planned, from security, protocols, and seat charts to clothes, shoes, and hairstyles.
Even today, Jackie Kennedy’s look is referred to as part of fashion’s history. Her A-line dress and coat designed by French Designer Oleg Cassini with oversized buttons and a pillbox hat became part of Jackie Kennedy’s signature style (L’Officiel USA), inspiring fashion houses across the world and future first ladies of the United States, with a minimalistic elegance that makes Jackie Kennedy the most glamorous first lady of the 20th century for many historians and researchers.
By understanding the power that fashion has to communicate messages, we can use it to our advantage. Politicians use fashion to attract voters, connect with citizens, make political statements, or start a conversation around a certain topic. Sometimes is quite clear what they want to say to us through their clothes, other times it’s implicit and they want to create more of an emotional reaction to connect with us.
Now that you’ve seen some examples of fashion being political, and politicians using fashion to communicate. What do you want to say about your clothes?
We don’t want people to talk only about the clothes, we need to choose our clothes carefully so that they align with our message and our intention.