Yuh-Line Niou on the Politics of Clothing

Yuh-Line Niou on the Politics of Clothing

Yuh-Line Niou on the Politics of Clothing

There is always a politics to clothing choices—especially if you’re a political figure subject to media scrutiny.

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All over Twitter and social media, people posted about Marjorie Taylor Greene’s State of the Union outfit, which looked like a Cruella de Vil costume. There were articles about it in news outlets from The Washington Post to The Guardian. People wondered if it was real fur, what she meant by it, and whether she was just, as usual, promoting white… ness? Apparently it was a comment on President Biden and the Chinese balloon, but her obvious goal was to get media attention, and it worked.

Is there always a political statement in what a politician or political figure wears? Why did they wear that? What are they trying to say? Why can we not stop talking about it? Is it wrong for us to talk about what someone wears? Why does what someone wears even matter?

There is the never-ending commentary on Ilhan Omar being the first Congress member ever to wear a hijab on the floor. Her hijab is often mentioned in articles about her policies. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first took office, the topic of what she was wearing often turned into sexist and classist commentary trying to shame her.

Everyday fashion choices become sensations—or scandals—if you’re a political figure. Nowhere is that clearer than in the tempest around the tan suit President Barack Obama wore in 2014 to a press conference about the US military’s response to the Islamic State in Syria. Conservative commentary claimed the color was inappropriate given the gravity of the situation. The tan suit “scandal” became such media catnip that the incident has its own Wikipedia page.

“I think people are getting it now: Politics isn’t binary,” the late Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton and Off-White was quoted as saying in a 2020 Vogue article. “It’s this system we’re in and all the ways it manifests. There’s the politics on your phone and the politics on your street. And, yeah, there’s the politics of your clothes.”

I remember thinking about that Abloh quote when I was sitting and freezing on the floor of the New York State Assembly. Like many workplaces across the country, it is kept at a ridiculously low temperature—a conscious choice made in the name of “protocol” and “decorum.” Men are required to wear a full suit and tie when voting on the floor. Jackets are mandatory. (There is an actual rulebook.) The temperature is adjusted to ensure that men wearing suits are comfortable.

The chamber’s temperature hasn’t been changed to accommodate the women members or staff who work on the floor. Because the rules haven’t been updated to meet the times we’re in, our views are not considered in the thermostat fight, despite the fact that we tend to “feel the cold” more than men. So women working on the legislative floor have become used to bringing an array of accessories with them, from blankets and fleece sweaters to full outdoor winter coats.

There is the politics of our clothing: where it comes from, how it is made, what in our history or our environment (like the temperature of the legislative floor) makes it the apparel we choose to wear on a given day. But there is also the conversation about clothes as a political statement.

When I was in office, I was hands down one of the most stylish members ever to walk the halls of Albany. (I won’t allow arguments at this time.) I represented Lower Manhattan, and I know I looked like I represented Lower Manhattan. I was always running from events to meetings to committees or voting on the floor. Even in my busiest moments, though, I still knew that everything I did—not just what I put on that day—was a statement. Even if the statement was simply “I’m working so hard for you, I don’t do anything else. Ever.”

Fashion and political advocacy go hand in hand, and that’s always been true. Think about the change in fashion during the women’s suffrage movement, coupled with women’s tireless fight for the right to vote. Or during the 1960s and ’70s, when the anti-war movement adopted a look that remains iconic half a century later, while Black civil rights activists wore their “Sunday best” to promote dignity. Unions wear their colors at rallies; the Women’s March popularized the pink pussy hat; and the LGBTQ movement has adopted the rainbow flag. For social movements, color choice has become a means to display solidarity.

Political figures are asked to make statements all the time. Sometimes we do it with our clothes. I am an immigrant, and I have been the recipient of endless amounts of racism and xenophobia. I chose to wear a white dress, a collared long navy jacket, and matte red lipstick for my debate when I ran for Congress—the colors I chose for my campaign literature, and the colors of our nation’s flag. With her outfit, Greene achieved her goal of being splashed everywhere in the media evoking whiteness. Likewise, with her hijab, Omar is inspiring a conversation that confronts rampant anti-Muslim sentiment. Ocasio-Cortez is effectively speaking out about the vitriol she’s experienced and showing people exactly how hard it is to be a young woman of color in office.

And, yes, political statements are being made, in true political fashion.

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