12 Women Politicians and Activists Who Have Proudly Made Fashion Part of the Conversation
The idea that fashion and politics coexist in the same space is without question, as clothing is continuously used to send messages and speaks strongly to the wearer's disposition. It's about way more than just a few pantsuits, the colors of which former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has meticulously chosen to pay homage to the historical movements or subtly comment on a current issue. Former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama tapped into the world of fashion design during her time in the spotlight, too, having described her love for championing rising talent and bringing attention to skilled artists.
Recently, US House Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez did just that when she wore BIPOC designers for her Vanity Fair cover, which she then acknowledged on Twitter after being called out for the price point of the looks included in the editorial wardrobe. "Republicans are Very Mad (again) about my appearance. This time they're mad that I look good in borrowed clothes (again)," she wrote. AOC touched on the very real notion that women in politics will be scrutinized by the media because of what they wear, whether it's in real life or for a magazine photo shoot, where they leave the clothing on set behind.
All the women we're talking about here, who are political leaders and activists from around the world, have not shied away from this reality — quite the opposite, in fact. Many of them have spoken out about what their way of dress means to them, whether it is because of cultural background, religion, or taste. Scroll down to read how they've proudly made fashion a part of the conversation.
Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States
"[Fashion is] like my music. Everything in my closet is something that I love, so that I can make choices based on what makes sense, knowing that I'm going to love whatever it is. I think that tends to be my philosophy," Michelle said at a White House roundtable in October 2011.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US House Representative
"It's legitimately hard being a first-generation woman . . . and being working class, trying to navigate a professional environment. It continues to take me so long to try to figure out how to look put-together without having a huge designer closet," AOC said during her 2020 Vanity Fair editorial that showcased BIPOC designers. She was later scrutinized for wearing expensive clothes for the feature's photo shoot, which, as she pointed out on Twitter, were borrowed.
Kamala Harris, US Senator and Vice President Elect
"I love my [Chuck Taylors]. I think maybe people don't expect it, but I think it's a statement about who we really are," Kamala told Complex in October. "Everyone's got their inner kind of Chuck look. I think it just has to do with the fact that we all want to go back to some basic stuff about who we are as a country. Whatever your background, whatever language your grandmother spoke, we all at some point had our Chucks."
Hillary Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State
"When I ran for Senate in 2000 and President in 2008, I basically had a uniform: a simple pantsuit, often black, with a colorful shell underneath," Hillary wrote of her style in her book, What Happened. "I did this because I like pantsuits. They make me feel professional and ready to go." She also noted she was influenced by her childhood hero, Nancy Drew, who wore trousers. "Some people like my clothes and some people don't," Hillary wrote. "It goes with the territory. You can't please everybody, so you may as well wear what works for you."
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex
"You don't have to play dress-up to be a feminist," Meghan told Create & Cultivate in 2016. "You are a feminist exactly the way you are. You can be a woman who wants to look good and still stand up for the equality of women."
Madeleine Albright, Former United States Secretary of State
"I didn't actually have a grand plan when I first started collecting pins. . . . There's a history to jewelry serving as a communicator (although in the past it was mostly worn by men)," Madeleine said of her iconic brooch collection in a 2009 interview with Forbes. "My niche is that I am capable of explaining foreign policy in a way that's less boring, and I think that my [pins] reflect that. Also, it's a very democratic statement. Most of my brooches are inexpensive costume jewelry; anyone can build a collection." She added: "I love being a woman, and I don't want to look like a man. I enjoy bright colors and feminine-looking clothes."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Late Supreme Court Justice
The late judge, who dedicated certain collars — all of which were uniquely indicative of her personality — to specific cases, depending on what opinion she was delivering, gave a tour of the closet in her robing room to C-SPAN in 2009. "You know, the standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show and tie, so Sandra Day O'Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included, as part of our robe, something typical of a woman," she said. "So I have many, many collars."
Gloria Steinem, Political Activist and Journalist
"Fashion in the past meant conforming and losing oneself. Fashion in the present means being unique and finding oneself," Gloria famously said. In a 2015 interview with Lena Dunham for Lenny Letter, she defined her "power outfit" as "Boots, pants, a sweater or a T-shirt. A concha belt. Something that's Native American or Indian, or something that has a resonance from the past before patriarchy came along."
Rania Al-Abdullah, Queen Consort of Jordan
"There are many women like me who don't wear a veil," Queen Rania told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in 2008 regarding leaders who put pressure on women to dress in a particular way through religion or society. "So long as it's a choice. I have nothing against the veil and I think that, wrongly, many in the West look at the veil as a symbol of oppression. Now as long as a woman chooses to wear a veil because of her belief and because of her own personal relationship with God, she should be free to dress whichever way she wants and we should be smarter than to apply more meaning to a symbol of clothing than we should because, you know, all over the world there are many symbols of dress, many ways of prayer etc. We shouldn't, you know, judge people through the prism of our own stereotypes."
Ilhan Omar, US House Representative
"No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It's my choice — one protected by the first amendment. And this is not the last ban I'm going to work to lift," Ilhan tweeted after becoming the first federal legislator to wear a religious headscarf, a piece she works into her outfits with style, sense, and sophistication. In 2019, she told Yahoo: "There are two women in Congress right now — one of them wears a hijab and the other doesn't — and for me it was a choice that I made to have a visible visual representation of my faith. . . . I thought you know the best thing that I could do was to make sure that I was visually showing up in every aspect of society as a visible Muslim so that people can start to associate positive interactions with Muslims."
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives
The speaker of the House, who has maintained the importance of wearing a face mask in public and can be partly credited with starting the fashion trend of matching your mask to your clothing, shopped for her first styles at an upscale clothing boutique in Alexandria, VA, called Donna Lewis, owned by Chris Lewis. "She said, 'Chris, pick me out some, send me about four or five.' Since then, whoosh, like a rocket — it's been overwhelming," Chris told CNN of his now-coveted collection of colorful, printed masks that people shop to get Nancy's look.
Carol Moseley Braun, Former United States Senator
"If I lose, I'm going to retire from politics, practice law, and wear bright leather pants," Carol famously said during a 1990 Senate race.