Nobody is denying that these women amount to more than their fashion choices (Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
For all its political and historical significance, my inauguration highlight was something else entirely.
Michelle Obama’s exquisite burgundy ensemble accessorised expertly with a statement belt and leather gloves stole the show completely.
I’ve always been captivated by the style choices of the world’s most powerful women and the subtle artistry in selecting clothes for high pressured and historic moments.
There’s so much at stake; one wrong move could offend millions but get it right and your clothes could serve as a perfect extension of your political message.
Yet, so often I’ve found myself chastised by others for an ‘anti-feminist’ fixation on fashion. I’ve been told that to place such significance on the styling of women in power is to confine them to the very stereotypes they wish to escape. An old-fashioned approach that judges women based on appearance instead of substance.
This viewpoint is of course nothing new and it maintains that it’s sexist to pay any attention to what women in power wear.
Nobody is denying that these women amount to more than their fashion choices, but that shouldn’t mean we ignore the significance of their clothing. While some assert that we should relegate fashion coverage in the name of focusing on politics, it seems evident to me that the fashion is the politics.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the inauguration earlier this week.
From the Biden granddaughters to Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Dr Jill Biden and even Lady Gaga, the ceremony was awash with fashion forward monochrome magic, each ensemble seemingly more striking than the last.
But for some, there were strong statements to be made.
In dismissing fashion as trivial we minimise the immense skill, symbolism, and economic impact of the fashion industry (Picture: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Both Vice President Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama chose Black designers to dress them – a coincidence? Hardly. The VP’s stepdaughter Ella Emhoff also chose a nod to her cultural heritage enlisting Jewish designer Batsheva to craft her outfit for the occasion.
Choosing to platform artists from minority backgrounds in this way is a powerful declaration of pride in a part of their identity that is so often marginalised, giving countless others like them the confidence to be proud too.
‘It also offers an invaluable stamp of legitimacy’ says Annabelle Baiyewu whose sustainable African brand WAA fashion, was recently worn by a notable journalist during an interview with Vogue Editor-In-Chief Edward Enninful. ‘When someone like that wears your designs, people recognise you as a ‘real’ business’ she added.
Recognising the effect fashion choices can have is to understand the variety of ways one can express themselves politically, and the subtle intelligence that goes into making these decisions.
The VP’s stepdaughter Ella Emhoff also chose a nod to her cultural heritage (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
In dismissing fashion as trivial we minimise the immense skill, symbolism, and economic impact of the fashion industry, while also ignoring the conscious decisions made by each woman to showcase her politics and draw attention to important issues.
In a similar way, Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s gold hoops and red lip at her swearing in ceremony were a defiant stand against harmful stereotypes of Latina women, which she acknowledged by stating ‘Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman.’
Wearing items consistently used to discredit and demean people of colour in a building and during a ceremony that is the embodiment of the American establishment could not be more political in its nature.
Her actions resulted in an immediate and extensive pay-off for Latina women around the world in a way that perhaps not even her policies are capable of.
Her actions resulted in an immediate and extensive pay-off for Latina women (Credits: AFP via Getty Images)
From the Bronx to North London, Latina women were emboldened to carry their culture with pride. Clothing possesses a unique ability to change the narrative instantaneously and for women in power, harnessing that can often be just as important as the work they do.
Political power dressing, when done correctly, can have wide reaching and a sometimes life-changing impact.
For example, The Duchess of Sussex notoriously uses ‘The Meghan Effect’ to platform causes important to her.
Outland, a brand that supports victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia, reported more than a 2000% increase in global sales after she wore jeans designed by them at a royal engagement.
The politics of fashion should never be underestimated and nor should the ability of powerful women to use it to their advantage.
With a simple ring, inauguration laureate Amanda Gorman invoked a powerful reminder of America’s ongoing racial struggle. The caged bird ring, gifted to her by Oprah, paid homage to Maya Angelou – an icon of the civil rights movement.
In referencing Angelou, Gorman sent an important message that her presence, as a young Black woman, was only made possible by those who fought before her. This is yet another example of fashion’s deeper significance and its power to emote where words fail.
Far from distracting from a woman’s actions, her clothes are so often a crucial part of them providing globally recognised cultural symbols in a way that little else can.
So no, coverage of what a female politician wears isn’t automatically sexist and blindly branding it so is lazy.
Taking an interest in powerful women’s clothing doesn’t make you shallow or less of a feminist, in fact it’s very likely they could be using it to tell you something.
Tiwa Adebayo writes about race, fashion and sport and you can follow her on Instagram here.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.