The cultural resurgence of suffragist style for the State of the Union

On Tuesday we wear white.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (L) performs a ceremonial swearing-in for US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R), D-NY, at the start of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 3, 2019. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (L) performs a ceremonial swearing-in for US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R), D-NY, at the start of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 3, 2019. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Chances are the media-savvy suffragists who wore white so their photographs would pop in print did not anticipate their successors would rely on the same tactics to shine on television a century or so later. Probably they didn’t think citizens would need to make such grand gestures anymore, that the once-radical cause of “women are also people” would simply be accepted as a given and would no longer require a uniform.

And yet, here we are: The House Democratic Women’s Working Group is calling for female legislators to wear white to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening. “Wearing suffragette white is a respectful message of solidarity with women across the country, and a declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned rights,” Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida, the group’s chair, told CNN.

Considering the near-parodic level of disarray that has come to define the Trump White House — where staffers are whisked in and out of the West Wing faster than Bachelor contestants are sent, via limousines, back to obscurity — the fact that these female legislators are able to coordinate literally anything, even their attire, makes them look more put-together than the President of the United States. Symbolism aside, it’s a bit of a flex, no? The effort is proof that these female legislators have it together, in the full sense of that word.

In the years since Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the suffragist suit has experienced a cultural resurrection, speedily becoming the little black dress of women in politics. It’s a go-to aesthetic that gestures at history without looking dated, a uniform that still leaves space for your identity to shine through. You’re part of something bigger; you are still your individual self. It is both obviously and undeniably political, as well as being such a safe and accessible raiment that women as politically divergent as first lady Melania Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have worn it for events when they knew the spotlight would find them: the former to last year’s State of the Union address, the latter to her swearing-in ceremony.

Still, it’s pretty entry-level, as statements go, and to the skeptical or judgmental eye, it can seem a little cute for the context. (“Let’s all wear matching outfits!”) Putting on a suffragist-style suit no sooner makes a person a real-deal advocate for women’s equality than dressing as a nurse for Halloween qualifies you to set up somebody’s IV drip. 


This is the second time female legislators have intentionally worn white to Trump’s State of the Union address. (Last year, the requested dress code was all-black, to show solidarity with the women of Time’s Up who’d done the same on the Golden Globes red carpet.) And this year’s SOTU will be delivered before an unprecedented number of women in Congress, many of whom are younger and more diverse than their predecessors ever were. These are women who know not to waste a millisecond of screen time, who want to make sure their message is heard even when, technically speaking, all they can do during Trump’s address is be seen.

What makes displays like this unified dress code effective? If anyone can dress like a suffragist, and if they do so often enough, does the style lose its meaning? Or does it gain more impact through repeated exposure as citizens learn to connect the the white pantsuit with its history? To dig into the resurgence of the white suffragist suit and the power of fashion in politics, ThinkProgress spoke with fashion critics Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez of style and culture site Tom and Lorenzo.

What was your initial reaction to this idea of women in the House wearing white suits to the State of the Union??

Tom: Since the 2016 election, every aspect of our lives has become more politicized, and fashion is right in line with the rest of that. It has become a tool in politics. And this movement right now that we’ve been clocking since Hillary first wore her white pantsuit at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and then Melania wore a white pantsuit — probably as an F.U. to Hillary’s pantsuit — to the State of the Union, and also Melania’s infamous pink pussy bow blouse at the debate. We realized, wow, people are really getting semiotic about their fashion choices in politics.

What you had in the last year, you had Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come into full bloom in the public eye, and she’s a millennial and a young woman who likes fashion and makes no bones of it. It’s part of her brand as a politician. And because of her extensive use of social media, she’s gotten very good at branding herself. Her first day for orientation, she shows up in this bright red dress — in my opinion, that is not a coincidence.


And people who’ve been in the game a long time, like Nancy Pelosi, have started to learn this. I don’t think her Max Mara coat was a deliberate choice on her part, but once it exploded in the press, a light bulb went off over her head. And when she became Speaker again, she wore a #resistance pink dress to pick up that gavel. I looked back into the archives for this: When Nancy became Speaker the first time, she wore a very sober, basic politician suit. So I feel like the choice on her part was very deliberate. She understood — and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez understands this, too — as a woman politician, she has a tool to her advantage that male politicians don’t have, and that is fashion.

I think Hillary understood that at the end of her campaign. She started getting bolder in her choices. You look at the Melania “I don’t care” jacket, and on both sides of the aisle, these are all on the same continuum. Women in politics are learning that their fashion can be as much of a statement as their statements.

One concern I have about these sorts of dress-code-as-statement events is this element of women basically telling other women how to dress to prove they’re on the same team. I understand the power of that visual, and obviously, teams have uniforms! But in this context, is it a little “on Wednesdays, we wear pink”? What if you don’t wear white? Does that mean you’re… anti-woman? Anti-feminist?

Tom: I agree! I think that’s a downside to it, when you try and organize the way for everyone else to dress. I think ideas like this work better in a red carpet setting, like the Time’s Up protest at the Golden Globes last year. That’s a little bit easier, because they’re not politicians. They’re not representing all these competing agendas and different parts of the country. When you ask politicians of any gender to all dress the same way at the same time, I think you’re setting yourself up for a little bit of failure. So I doubt there will be across-the-board participation in this for all women in the House.

Lorenzo: I think it depends on the politicians. The beauty of this is it opens up a whole gamut of possibilities for women to dress however they want. I think women always fear that if they didn’t dress a certain way, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. With all these young female politicians in the arena, they bring this idea of: They’re young women and they love fashion.

Tom: The diversity among these women is a big part of why they’re bringing in new rules of fashion.

Lorenzo: They feel they should be wearing whatever they want to wear, and I think that’s terrific. And why not, every now and then, organize women to dress a certain way? I think t’s powerful. It sends a certain message. It would be hard to get everybody on board, and that could be a [hazard] with the social media world we live in — that if you don’t do something, you’ll always be criticized for not being part of a group.


Tom: I think there’s a danger, when you start using fashion symbolically to send messages like that, you’re going to start using it as a weapon to beat people over the head for not using it to send the message. As Lorenzo said, it’s a powerful idea for women politicians to salute suffragettes by showing up in white suits. But the flip side of that, we can’t criticize anyone who didn’t show up wearing a white suit as if that’s the final word on her politics. You don’t define feminism by the color of your suit, and you don’t define politics by the color of your suit. So there is that line, whenever these organized dress codes pick up. People have to make sure they’re foster unity and not as a weapon.

Is there any risk of the white suit losing its symbolism as it becomes deployed more and more frequently, by women with an ever-wider range of political agendas and views? Does it eventually just lose all meaning?

Tom: That’s always the issue. When they came out with the pussy hats, immediately, people latched onto that and tried to turn it into a moment of ridicule, they were coming out with all different variations on it to minimize its power. So that’s going to happen. Although, Melania came out in that white suit and it felt like a rebuke to Hillary’s white suit, but then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out in the white suit last month. So I don’t think Melania took away that significance.

As you’ve documented on your site, since 2016, more and more female celebrities are wearing pantsuits and tuxedos on red carpets. It seems, to me, pretty unusual for celebrities to be taking their fashion cues from politics as opposed to the other way around. Is that trajectory — of a style moving from politics to pop culture — unprecedented?

Lorenzo: I don’t think we’ve seen that before in fashion. And I think it’s also related to the idea that the red carpet is a place where women are always being criticized and asked questions about what they wear and never about their work and what they’re there for. So when that happened on the red carpet, it had a message. Women wanted to say something. So I think it’s very new.

Tom: Prior to this moment in politics, the only time fashion and politics overlapped was in our first ladies, which has always been seen as a very 19th century traditional hostess role. It’s very much a throwback. I think part of the reason you’re seeing this overlap of politics and fashion is that there’s so many women in politics now.

There’s an historic number of women sitting in this House in this session. They’re young and they’re diverse. So they’re bringing ideas of how to dress other than that of a white, middle-aged, middle manager. You have African American and Latina women, their hair is braided or they’re wearing bright red dresses and lipstick, or Palestinian garb. These women are making very powerful choices in their fashion to make people understand, not only that they’re there and they’re women, but they’re diverse. That is the main reason why, post-Hillary, you’re seeing women change how they’re approaching their fashion and politics: Because of the rise of these non-traditional politicians.

No one could’ve predicted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez four years ago. But there’s a bunch of women coming up now in politics who are like her and aren’t playing by the old rules. And when you’re talking about millennials, they don’t care about those distinctions — or about treating politics and fashion as two separate things. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks about her lipstick on her Instagram stories! She knows that’s part of her brand.

The State of the Union is not a fashion event; this isn’t a red carpet. But it is still a television event, where image and performance do matter. What, then, is the potential for the visual impact of something like this suffragist-white dress code? Is it something people are likely to notice or care about?

Tom: I think this year the big visual will be Nancy Pelosi sitting right behind [President Trump]. And knowing what she learned from wearing that Max Mara coat and the bright pink when she took that gavel, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wore something that drew attention to herself. She is learning how to use fashion to pull focus. So I think there will be a lot of attention paid to what she’s wearing and what to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is wearing — because that’s part of her brand, and like it or not, people are going to discuss it.

Speaking as two self-described “bitchy fashion bloggers,” I really truly hope that we don’t turn this into a moment where these women’s style choices are criticized. We can talk about the symbolism of their choices. But I don’t want to get into “their shoes don’t match their bags.” Because then we are missing the point of all of this.

Lorenzo: A lot of our readers ask why we don’t cover more female politicians, and that’s exactly the reason why we don’t. We cover the first ladies in general, bc their dresses go to a museum. What they wear is important, so that’s why we cover this. But [that is not the case] for female politicans. We feel that it wouldn’t be right to criticize what these women wear.

And thinking back to the red carpet and the all-black protest at the Golden Globes,i think that was interesting because women on the red carpet, they always had the “freedom” to wear whatever they want — all colors, prints, everything. So when they switched to black, that was a very strong message. For female politicians, they’ve always been very restrained, limited to gray and black and dark colors. So in my view, the way to rebel and make a statement is to wear whatever they want to wear. It’s a great idea to have them all in white, but I’d like them to have the freedom to have whatever they want, and that would send a much bigger message: That women can be whatever they want, wear whatever fashion they want, and still be taken seriously.

We’re already seeing a number of female politicians declare themselves presidential hopefuls for 2020. What are your expectations for political power dressing as we have more women in the presidential race than ever before?

Tom: When we talk about the women who are running for president, we’re talking about women who are fairly traditional in their mode of dress. Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren: they all dress like politicians. And this is not a criticism at all. They all present themselves perfectly fine! Kamala is a slightly sharper dresser than Kirsten, [who] basically dresses like Hillary, except in skirts. And Elizabeth Warren dresses like a college professor, and that’s part of her brand! I wouldn’t expect any of them to change how they dress. I think if any of them tried to change that now, it would come off extremely false.

They are not representative of that new guard of millennial women, so they don’t have to pretend that they are. And this isn’t an age thing; Nancy has embraced this wholeheartedly, and become quite adept at it. But the women who’ve announced their presidential hopes, I wouldn’t expect any of them to have some fashion approach to their presidential campaign. We’re not there yet. When the first millennial female runs for president, we’ll see a change in how candidates dress.

What do you make of just the fact that “suffragette white” is a shorthand and style now?

Tom: When it comes to the female white politician suit, people are really going to have to give Hillary that one. She pretty much gave that as a symbol for women going forward in politics. I don’t want to overstate this too much, because all these women are their own women and owe their success to themselves. But when you see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing a white suit, you can see the Hillary effect visually represented. The effect she had on politics, the fact that so many women ran in the wake of her defeat, and we have a historic number of women in politics, that all goes back to Hillary and to that white suit.

So I love that it has now become this established image. When you see a politician in a white pantsuit, there’s no question that she’s making a suffragette allusion. Hillary succeed in making that into a symbolic image — and Hillary’s no fashion Ph.D.! That’s why I’m impressed by that. Hillary was never a Michelle Obama who really knew how to use fashion. But in one of those final moments in her candidacy — one of the most important moments — she stepped up and created this symbol.

Lorenzo: I think it’s a great idea to call it the “suffragette” look, because it ties it to women’s history and is a reminder that, not so long ago, women couldn’t even vote.

Tom: And a reminder that the work is still being done.

Lorenzo: To remind the younger generation, because people forget the past quickly. It’s a nice reminder, and powerful one, that not so long ago they couldn’t vote, and now they’re running for office.

Women haven’t really had an outfit that does for them what a suit does for a man: Basically, make you look more competent and more conventionally attractive at the same time. As a woman, almost everything you wear to appear more “beautiful” also makes you look less “serious” (high heels, form-fitting dresses). Could the white suffragist pantsuit become that attire, at least for women in office?

Lorenzo: It’s definitely the little black dress for female politicians.

Tom: And this is definitely something new.