Dress to Express
Fashion speaks truth to power.
The “Scamdemic Protest/March” that disrupted the distribution of covid-19 vaccines at Dodger’s Stadium in Los Angeles in January had a dress code: no Trump or MAGA gear. Apparently, the Trump brand is now so toxic that organizers were worried that it would tarnish their otherwise crowd-pleasing mission of preventing vaccinations during a deadly global pandemic. A dress code banning MAGA hats is a fitting end to the Trump era, which has been marked by its costumed theatricality.
We’ve endured the vulgar masculinity of Donald’s too-long red ties; Melania’s overly literal and often tone-deaf fashion statements (a Jackie O. dress at the Inauguration, a pith helmet in Africa, the none-too-cryptic “I really don’t care” jacket when visiting detained migrant children), Ivanka’s antiseptic Beltway Barbie ensembles. In symbolic opposition, there’s been a global explosion of dramatic protest fashion: pink knitted pussy hats, Handmaiden’s habits, yellow vests, Antifa bandanas, militia fatigues, and QAnon fantasy costumes.
The Trump era amplified political fashion statements, but they’ve been around for centuries, as I discovered when writing my new book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, sumptuary laws decreed that certain styles, colors, and fabrics were reserved for the nobility. When political dissidents began to rebel against the old regimes of Europe, they adopted new dress codes that matched their ideological aspirations.
For instance, after the execution of Charles I, the English aristocracy cast aside ornate courtly dress in favor of the lightweight streamlined fashions that would evolve into the now-familiar business suit. Later, during the French Revolution, the vanguard of the revolutionaries were known as “sans culottes,” meaning without the knee breeches and stockings characteristic of aristocratic dress. By the early 1800s in the United States, “silk stocking” was a well known term for a hidebound, reactionary snob.
Black activists made a political fashion statement in the mid-20th century dressed in their Sunday best for sit-ins at lunch counters or civil rights marches. Today, some activists deride this as “respectability politics;” an attempt to curry favor with whites by mimicking mainstream, bourgeois culture. But this is a profound misreading of their intentions and of how they were perceived at the time. For generations, racist whites had considered well-dressed black people “uppity” and ridiculed and attacked them. Indeed, laws in some states had forbidden black people to dress “above their condition.” Given this context, refined dress was a powerful, symbolic demand to be treated with respect and dignity.
Today, most politicians avoid anything obviously fashionable: a conspicuous drabness in attire suggests a seriousness and down-to-earth indifference to surface appearances. But, of course, this itself is a fashion statement. The few who stand out at all do so in cannily calculated ways. For example, Bernie Sanders’ crewneck sweaters and thick woolen mittens are an integral part of his image: unconventional but also unassuming; unstudied but serious.
Women have more latitude in their dress than men but also few if any safe harbors: every ensemble risks either a disempowering dowdiness or a disreputable sexiness; matronly sluggishness or youthful lack of discretion; the sin of sloth or that of vanity. Most just hope to walk the sartorial tightrope without attracting negative attention, but a few lean in to the Catch-22: if criticism is inevitable, the savvy move is to turn it to your advantage.
For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared in Interview magazine in a chic tailored pantsuit and spike heels, staring down the camera with steely eyes. Her style is unapologetically feminine but also unmistakably self-confident. Her bright red lipstick communicates not sex appeal but bravado. Her stiletto heels are power shoes, worn not to please men but to convey an assertive competence: she’s almost showing off, like boxing in a blindfold or dancing on stilts.
On the other side of the aisle, there’s the MAGA trucker hat, which communicates solidarity with the white working class and is also calculated to offend the sensibilities of cultured liberals. It’s less a symbol of ideological conviction than of personal fealty, a Trump-branded livery for loyal followers, perfect for a President with absolutist ambitions.
Even unavoidably functional garments are now divisive political symbols: if my face mask demonstrates my deference to scientific expertise and sense of social responsibility to some, to others it suggests a lack of faith in God and acceptance of a herd mentality.
Political fashion cuts against the familiar admonishment not to judge based on appearances. But in an era of fake news, alternative facts, and politicians who expect their words to be taken seriously but not literally, it may seem that fashion statements are the only things that can still be trusted.
Richard Thompson Ford, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History (2021).
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