Female Politicians Using Fashion In Brilliant Ways

by Melissa L. Haney

President Obama's 2015 State of the Union address had more than a few memorable moments, but something of particular significance was the long-overdue emphasis on women's rights. Indeed, Obama spoke of equal pay, of affordable and accessible birth control, and of paid maternity leave, finally bringing these issues — important to all Americans — to the front of the national stage. As the President said himself, "It's 2015. It's time."

But as Obama delivered this message of gender equality to television sets and computer screens across the nation, he was standing in front of a congressional audience composed of 445 men and 93 women. Tragically, gender inequality in American politics is nothing new, but a problem that even in 2015 still remains far from its alleviation. In a recent study published by FairVote, the United States ranked 95th when it came to the amount of women active in the national legislature. Celebration of those 93 women sitting in that State of the Union audience, as well as others who have risen to positions of power within the American political system, therefore, proves quite deserved. Their numbers may be few, but their long list of accomplishments would certainly not lead anyone to believe it.

Indeed, the accomplishments of these women are what merit the most and highest recognition. It is because of these achievements that the wardrobes of these women warrant some further discussion. Like it or not, looks matter — sometimes for men, but almost always for women, and especially for women working in a predominately male profession (i.e. female politicians). Sure, Rihanna and Madonna are fashion icons, but as this New York Times article points out, using them as a source of fashion inspiration really doesn't make sense in almost any professional context:

"It really makes no sense at all, when you think about it, that we are supposed to take our dressing cues from 20-something celebrities (or celebrities who may be closer to 30-something or even 40-something but who have been made to look 20-something thanks to airbrushing and other sorts of photo magic), most of whom are, in fact, not even dressing themselves and certainly are not dressing themselves for pitching a new client or negotiating a deal or teaching[.]"

What makes sense is an admiration for what women in power choose to wear. Of course it's frustrating when media chooses to focus so much attention on wardrobe choice, and it's imperative to remember the reasons for looking to these women for fashion insights in the first place. But so long as you do this, why not get fashion inspiration from women in politics? Clearly, they know what they're doing.


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Did you think this list was going to start with anyone else? Throughout her long tenure as one of the most heralded figures — male or female — in American political history, Hillary Rodham Clinton has served as Secretary of State, Senator of New York (being the first woman elected to the position), and First Lady. Her resume more than speaks for itself, yet constant emphasis always seems to be placed upon either her tendency towards pantsuits or her penchant for scrunchies; Clinton's wardrobe choices always end up the subject of some sort of fashion fodder, far more so than any of her male colleagues.

Yet Clinton does not let this phase her — rather, she continues on dressing in such a sophisticated manner so as to serve as the sort of model for all women who hope to follow in her footsteps. Yes, she wears pantsuits, but each is meticulously tailored to her frame, proving that a semblance of femininity isn't detrimental to a powerful appearance and that such femininity doesn't always mean dresses and a-line skirts. Yes, she likes a bold accessory (and clearly has a thing for pearls), but each always adds and never takes away, granting perfect amounts of fashion prowess to her ensembles. Think what you will of her political leanings, but there is no denying that Hillary Rodham Clinton stands as a legendary American public figure who also happens to know how to work fashion to her advantage.


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If this list started with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only next logical step would be to include Michelle Obama. Acting as current First Lady of the United States, Obama may not be a member of Congress or a judge on the Supreme Court, but take one look at her academic, professional and fashion history, and it becomes even harder to imagine this list without her. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, Obama held jobs in both the public and private sector before turing her focus to supporting her husband in his political endeavors, which she did with incredible finese and intelligence — take one listen to her 2008 Democratic National Convention keynote speech and it becomes even harder to doubt her place in American political history. Throughout her time in the White House, Obama's role has hardly been limited to just "President's wife." She has worked tirelessly to advance the rights of US veterans and their families and, of course, make sure that kids (and adults) remember to eat their vegetables.

Moreover, she does so with effortless personal style that places her solidly in the ranks of the greatest American fashion icons. Now, to discuss the brilliance of Michelle Obama's wardrobe would be to continue a conversation that started all the way back in 2008, when she first ascended to the forefront of the national stage, so to consider her a style icon isn't anything new or revolutionary. But even still, in 2015, such recognition proves necessary, as Obama still consistently shatters the notion that a First Lady, or any powerful woman (in the home or in the office) for that matter, must forego modern fashion trends in order to be taken seriously. Be it in a J. Crew jacket or in a Jason Wu gown, Michelle Obama knows what it means to dress to impress, exuding confidence and authority in outfits that never appear to cater to what others think she should wear, but rather always seem to adhere to standards of what she wants to wear — and that's inspiring.


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The first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor's career in American politics stands as one of the most inspirational — not just because of all that she has achieved, but also because of what she overcame to achieve it. Raised by a widowed mother in the Bronx, Sotomayor studied and worked her way out of the housing projects she grew up in to eventually land at Princeton, then Yale Law. She graduated into a position at a Manhattan district attorney's office, then to federal district courts in New York State, then to the national Court of Appeals, then to the Supreme Court. Through it all, she has maintained a formidable public persona informed by an inspiring embrace of her Latina identity, in the process, becoming one of the most respected American political figures, period.

Fittingly, any attention to be paid to what she wears comes secondary, especially now that most of the time she is pictured wearing a black robe. But, like all the women on this list, her accomplishments serve as significant reason to get inspired by what she wore when she accomplished them. Sotomayor always keeps things streamlined and professional, with a wardrobe that consists mostly of tailored dresses toped of with a fitted blazer. Intrinsic to Sotomayor's look, though, is the consistent pop of color she includes in each outfit — be it through the aforementioned blazers or a statement accessory, Sotomayor projects an unapologetic and admirable boldness through every outfit she wears.


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Nancy Pelosi's career in politics has been a legendary one. After moving to California and becoming a prominent member of the Democratic National Committee, eventually working her way to Washington to become the first woman elected as House Minority Whip in 2001. Then, in 2007, Pelosi became the first-ever woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives, fighting for and dissenting against more then a few landmark political moments. Now serving as Minority Leader, Pelosi continues to advance her political voice, key to which is an outspokenness against any sort of agism and sexism very much inherent to it.

Another large part of Pelosi's public persona is her smart and sharp style, one that maintains a solid air of seriousness without ever sacrificing a sense of fashion. Pelosi seems to stick to a palate of bold hues and bold accessories, sometimes wearing entire outfits composed of entirely one color. In doing so, Pelosi properly conveys her political boldness, never letting fashion overshadow or undermine her authority; yes, she's a woman, but she certainly cannot be messed with.

Images: Getty