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How Women of Color Are Redefining What a Politician Looks Like

2020-08-22 16:26:29

Forget pearls, go for the hoops.

Hit the double-breasted blazer, grab a leather jacket.

Sensible shoes can be stilettos or sneakers.

And you can never go wrong with a bold lip.

As she prepared to make her national prime-time television debut at last week's Democratic National Convention (tucked away among 16 other “ rising stars '' of the party) Yvanna Cancela knew which style she would choose: & # 39 the reddest lips and the largest of hoops. "

It was both an ideological decision and a fashion choice.

"I think women in politics should present themselves as they see themselves, not necessarily how they think they should be seen," said Ms. Cancela, a Nevada state senator who lives in Las Vegas. “I try to be deliberate and at the same time walk the line of not reinforcing stereotypes. If I didn't like it I wouldn't, but I wear my hoops about 90 percent of the time. "

"People respond much more to authenticity than to conformity," she added.

Many of the most notable on-screen displays are the D.N.C. were anomalies – some light, some bold – of anything that resembled the uniform look of muted colors, conservative cuts, and consultant-approved necklines that women in politics have held on to for years.

There was Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, in a lemon yellow blouse and chunky beaded necklace. Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women to be elected to Congress, wore turquoise earrings and a silver pendant, traditional symbols of protection and strength. Michelle Obama's gold voice chain sparked an insta trend – but many women also saw her bracelet-sized earrings.

As women of color across the country rise in politics, they expand the definition of what it means to look like a politician. On the national stage, Kamala Harris is the first black woman and person of Indian descent to be the vice-presidential candidate of a major party.

And from Congress to the state legislatures to local offices, women in their 20s and 30s enter politics as comfortably as they prefer shade of lipstick. Women in their 40s and 50s say they are more free to express their personal style.

"Politics follows culture and not the other way around, so what you're looking at is indicative of that cultural shift," said Carol Moseley Braun, a former Democratic senator from Illinois who was the second black woman to run for president. In the 1990s, Ms. Moseley Braun wore her hair in braids – inadvertently a topic of discussion in Washington.

For years, discussing the wardrobes of female politicians has been one taboo, as if avoiding all talk of appearance would necessarily mean taking women seriously in a male-dominated environment. (Just below 25 percent of members of Congress are women, a record high.)

Male politicians, of course, have their own sartorial dilemmas. But seeing clothing as a form of self-expression has traditionally not been an explicit aspect of electoral politics, said Rhonda Garelick, a fashion historian.

Now she sees women engage in and succeed in what they call 'pink politics'. calls – reclaiming what has long been considered trivial, or an obligation.

“Once we recognize its importance, it becomes a deeply feminist act,” said Ms. Garelick, a professor and the Dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons School of Design. “For decades, glamorous women meant the risk of not being taken seriously. Brilliantly though, we see women who are now unafraid of the arsenal of glamor, making a statement with their style and using it for the politically powerful tool it has always been. "

Fashion is a dual political tool, and she sees women in both parties expanding their definition of how a politician should dress. Sometimes change is very personal.

At the time, Ms. Pressley described her own style as "very conservative" and "traditional" and added: "Only recently have I been a bit bolder in my dress. & # 39; Since then, Ms. Pressley's leather jacket and colorful clothes have drawn their own fans.

Ms. Moseley Braun recalled a conversation years ago with a civil rights leader who said that some of America's most persistent racism had as much to do with hair as with skin color.

"It's a very sensitive issue for black women," said Ms. Moseley Braun, who has worn dozens of hairstyles during her decades-long career as a politician and ambassador.

In 2010, when Ms. Moseley Braun started her failed bid to become mayor of Chicago, a campaign advisor told her she needed extensions so that she could wear her hair similar to the style Ms. Obama wore at the time.

"She insisted that if I didn't get those kinds of extensions, people would think I was out of touch, or say I wasn't worth it," said Ms. Moseley Braun. "I fell for the right guy, it cost a fortune and I still lost the election."

And although everything has changed, it is easier not to cross borders. London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, said she no longer wears jeans in public, even when she's not on business. And while she's considered wrapping her hair in a scarf, she usually has it straightened.

& # 39; It's safest to wear the same suit, & # 39; she said. “People do make comments, and women get them more than anyone else. I remember there was a mayor with only three suits and no one said anything about his clothes. "

Ms. Breed has turned to a mentor over the years to ask about the image: Ms. Harris.

For her word of thanks Wednesday, Mrs. Harris wore a trouser suit, as she often does. But she is also known for her collection of Converse sneakers and received rave reviews for a sequined rainbow jacket she wore at the San Francisco pride parade.

“I grew up surrounded by people who took their looks very seriously,” said Ms. Harris a 2011 interview published in Harper & # 39; s Bazaar. "It was a sign of self-esteem." (She also noticed the "fabulous" ruffles of an otherwise conservative suit she wore.)

When Mrs. Haaland arrived in Washington, after winning office in 2018, she knew that many women cut their hair short or pull it back in a professional setting.

"My long dark brown hair is part of my culture," she said. “I also have to honor my ancestors. I wear big long dangling earrings, I wear a lot of bracelets. Sometimes they make a little noise. "

Ten years ago she may have felt the pressure to leave her jewelry at home.

“But now I think we're all those women, we all have each other's backs,” she said.

On Tuesday night in the D.N.C., when the camera turned to Representative Veronica Escobar during the roll-call vote, she spoke about the 2019 deadly attack in her El Paso neighborhood, all with white and large gold earrings. As a candidate, Ms. Escobar campaigned in sneakers, with hair in a ponytail. There was nothing about her that made her stand out in the neighborhood. But when her husband went to visit her in Washington after she became the first Latina congressman from Texas, he teased her by saying that you are easily identified, referring to the light clothes she was wearing that day.

"It's not like I want to go against the grain, I'm just doing my thing," she said. Part of that thing is routinely walking through the National Capitol in sky-high heels. & # 39; I'm always in tacones, & # 39; she said, using the word for stilettos in Spanish.

In 2018, when she was 27, Lina Hidalgo ran for the CEO of Harris County, the most powerful office in Houston, and heard conflicting views on how to change her appearance. First, a longtime leader of a nonprofit suggested at a meeting that she buy a pair of pearl necklaces so she could look older and more serious. Then, at an event a few days later, two young activists pulled her aside to say she should wear hoops to showcase her progressive bona fide.

Ms. Hidalgo politely thanked the well-meaning supporters. Then she ignored them.

And yet she had a nagging feeling that she was invisible at her own campaign events – that almost no one would recognize her as a candidate until someone else suggested her.

"The most common way I see women using clothing is as an invisibility cloak or armor," said Katherine Johnson, an image consultant who offers her services to progressive female candidates, including Ms. Hidalgo, who won the election. "When you play in what is still a man's world, I see women try again and again to project strength and power. But people also need warmth and connection."

What Ms. Hidalgo learned, she said, was "all the things that work for me and make me feel confident and strong," which she showed in her own performances at conventions.

"Every time one of us runs and wins, we update the perception of power," she said.

Today, Ms. Hidalgo's most striking fashion statements come in the form of her face masks – leopard print, detailed embroidery, bright green avocado – which she regularly posts on Instagram. In recent months she has hosted hundreds of handcrafted by other women across the country.


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