| Robin Givhan |
AT THE start of the 116th Congress, fashion was not merely a footnote, it was a rallying cry, a defiant gesture, a point of cultural pride – a glorious, theatrical declaration of self. It was white suits and pink dresses, Native American artistry, a Palestinian thobe, a kente cloth stole, a hijab and a skintight pencil skirt with a fur stole.
The main news story from Capitol Hill was, of course, the phoenix-like rise of Nancy Pelosi, Democratic representative for California. But even before she was sworn in as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, it was impossible to miss her as the television cameras swooped high and low over the sea of dark suits on the House floor.
Alas, despite an influx of women – a record 102 in the House – men still dominate, and those men continue to favour a palette of navy, charcoal and black. Pelosi’s bright fuchsia dress was like the plumage of a brazen bird, one with the audacity not just to fly with the flock but to lead it.
It was the aesthetic opposite of what she’d worn only the day before, when she went striding through the halls of the Capitol in a discreet suit the colour of cement. This was an entirely different ensemble for a momentous day – one not just for the cameras, but for the history books.
If there is any colour that has ever come close to defining a gender, it’s pink. Culturally, it has long been assigned to girls. And for generations of women who were stereotyped and bullied into polite smiles and reassuring deference, pink was their bane. Over time, pink ribbons came to symbolise serious women’s issues – although typically discussed in soft and fuzzy tones.
But this is the era of pink hats. The colour has been reclaimed and redefined. It is not about patience and calm or the kumbaya balm of we-are-all-equal. The new pink is aglow with outrage and the insistent demand that past wrongs be rectified.
Pelosi was dressed to take on the leadership role in the boldest, brightest, I-am-here shade of pink. In a November, 2018 CNN interview, Pelosi noted that no one is indispensable, “but some of us are just better at our jobs than others”.
That wasn’t overconfident swagger. It was honest. But it was the kind of honesty that women mostly don’t offer up about themselves, because that’s not what little girls in powder pink were taught to do. They were taught to whisper with humility.
These women of the new Congress, some of them, actually a lot of them, did not shy away from using fashion as a tool, from taking that quintessentially female pastime – the one derided for being frivolous – and turning it to their advantage. They used their attire to lure the cameras, to start tongues wagging and to make viewers reconsider their preconceptions about how Americans are defined, who has the right to lead and, ultimately, what power looks like.
Rashida Tlaib, Democratic representative for Michigan, wore a Palestinian thobe in honour of her mother. Tlaib, who is the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, recalled in an essay for Elle that as a child, she would watch as her mother sat on the floor stitching and embroidering the gowns with a lamp at her side. The decision was a statement about Tlaib’s background and a future in which it can be as welcomed in the United States as Western European roots are.
Similarly, Debra Haaland, Democratic representative for New Mexico, expressed her Native American heritage in turquoise jewellery and immaculate embroidery while also underscoring one of her campaign promises, which was to focus attention on missing and murdered Native women. African American congresswoman Barbara Lee, Democratic representative for California, had a kente cloth wrap draped around her shoulders.
Each of them used fashion to press the point that diversity is essential to the power dynamic. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post