“Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
United States Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted that message on Jan. 4 after receiving attention for wearing hoop earrings and red lipstick at her swearing-in ceremony. Her outfit choices have met criticism from some conservatives — and heightened support from many others.
Ocasio-Cortez said her all-white outfit was inspired by suffragettes and her hoops and lipstick came from Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who ignored advice from the Obama administration to avoid wearing bright-colored nail polish to her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in order to avoid scrutiny.
Ocasio-Cortez is one of the record 131 women serving in the 116th Congress, which has more women of color than any other Congress. Several women sworn in earlier this month paid tribute to their roots during their swearing-in ceremonies.
At Temple University, some students said these female politicians’ fashion choices sent a powerful message about culture and individuality.
“How a woman dresses can be very powerful,” said Karin Naktin, a freshman chemistry major. “Especially in this day and age as more women are moving into a higher political standing.”
Naktin follows political news and said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., serves as a role model for young girls who wear headscarves. Omar is one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress and wears a hijab.
Along with Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., represented her culture by wearing a thobe, a traditional Palestinian gown. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., wore a traditional Native American dress. Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe and is one of the first Native American women to be elected to Congress.
While the women’s decisions to wear cultural dress was empowering, some students felt placing too much worth on what female politicians wear took away from the emphasis on their policies and actions.
“Focusing on what a woman politician is wearing rather than their policies puts us back a few years,” freshman business and management major Addison Elizabeth Whittemore said.
“Female politicians should wear whatever they deem fit as long as it is professional,” she added.
Stylish women in politics hold a lot of power — and value — in the fashion industry. Michelle Obama generated $2.7 billion in value for brands she wore in the first year after former President Barack Obama’s election, Collective Culture Magazine reported.
Additionally, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton’s “Kate Effect,” the idea that if Kate Middleton wears it, everyone else will want to buy it, is estimated to be worth $1 billion Euros to the United Kingdom’s fashion industry, Newsweek reported.
Focusing on women’s physical appearances is not wrong, but unbalanced, said Patricia Amberg-Blyskal, a political science professor.
“Rather than saying it’s not something that should be discussed ever, perhaps [we should ask], ‘Why is it something that comes up with one gender and not the other gender?’” Amberg-Blyskal said. “Is that something that we should explore?”
At the 2015 Women in the World Summit, Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, said women can be intelligent and like fashion at the same time.
“I’m a woman, I like clothes,” May said. “One of the challenges for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is to be ourselves, and to say you can be clever and like clothes.”
It is important to prioritize the person’s politics and not to focus on someone’s physical traits or clothes, Amberg-Blyskal said.
“Although we might have commented on someone’s choice of lipstick or jewelry…we [should] move past it,” Amberg-Blyskal said.
If politicians’ fashion choices get people engaged in political conversations, it could be beneficial, she added.
“In some way, something caught their attention,” she said.