Fashion has been integral to the women’s movement and an essential part of the way women tell their stories.
Clothes have been a feminist statement since Emmeline Pankhurst and her tri-colored sash and moved on to Katherine Hepburn’s trousers, Maria Felix’s dresses with boots, and Patti Smith’s mannish overcoat.
When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris entered history dressed all in white at the Chase Center in Delaware, she honored this tradition and all the women that had come before and gave hope to little girls of color watching her the world over.
Harris is made of firsts: the first woman and the first woman of color to be vice president, the first woman of South Asian descent, and the Caribbean and the first daughter of immigrants. She graced the moment with a message that was both personal and political. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she said.
Harris gave symbolism to her words by wearing a white pantsuit with a pussy bow, not her usual attire since she joined Joe Biden as his running mate — she wore Converse sneakers and a pair of Timba boots on the campaign trail. These two garments are synonymous with women’s rights; clothing in white meant, according to a 1913 mission statement for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, “the quality of our purpose.”
The white pantsuit was a tip of the hat to Hillary Clinton, who wore it as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2016; to Shirley Chislom, who in 1968 wore white when she became the first African American woman elected to Congress and Geraldine Ferraro, who opted for a white suit for her acceptance speech as the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket in 1984.
The pussy bow — made iconic by Coco Chanel and an essential piece of Yves Saint Laurent’s original Le Smoking suit — became the working woman’s uniform of the 1980s (you can almost hear Carly Simon’s “New Jerusalem” in the background.) Harris wearing it to complete her white suit, designed by the Venezuelan-American designer Carolina Herrera (Joe Biden wore Dominican designer Oscar de la Renta) was the redemption of the bow, discredited by First Lady Melania Trump, who wore a Gucci hot pink “pussy bow” blouse, in what seemed like a response to her husband’s leaked “grab them by the pussy” video.
Not so these modern-day women who are crashing barriers left and right. “I wore all-white today to honor the women who paved the path before me and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted after swearing-in as the youngest member of Congress.
The Democratic women of Congress have made the white pantsuit (and in some cases the pussy bow) a mark of the rise of women in government — as well as a slash of signature red lipstick. That sea of white at the State of the Union address that met the gaze of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was a female fist in the air.
When I see the pantsuit, I also think of Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, who wore menswear as if it were a second skin, and with an attitude to match. Or the Mexican actress Maria Felix, the standard-bearer for Latina feminists, with her oversized blazers, boots with dresses, and razor-sharp wit.
It shouldn’t have to matter what a woman in political power wears, but it does. So we should use it. Use it to make a point, to frame history, and to move forward. Here is where fashion becomes political.
As Diana Vreeland, this century’s most formidable arbiter of elegance, said:
“Fashion is part of the daily air, and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”