With the 2020 presidential election coming up, for this week, I thought I would discuss a phenomenon which I find fascinating: the power of fashion in politics.
Like your high school AP English teacher’s dream come true, many times politicians not only dress to be professional, but also to convey a layered, deeper meaning or impression. Fashion can be used as a tool for the average person to express themselves as well as to subconsciously trick others, almost like camouflage or a brightly colored rainforest frog warning others of its poison.
“Fashion can be used as a tool for the average person to express themselves as well as to subconsciously trick others, almost like camouflage or a brightly colored rainforest frog warning others of its poison.”
Alright, maybe it’s not that serious or exciting as I’m making it sound. However, it is a great media literacy tool and a fun I-Spy game to use the next time you land on a debate or speech while channel surfing. This week, I’m here to guide you through debunking five of my favorite secret weapons politicians use, as well as a little history lesson on how they came about.
The Pussycat Bow
A lavallière, more commonly known as the pussycat bow, is the number one example that comes to mind when many think of political fashion. The pussycat bow actually goes all the way back to 19th century France, with many wearers of the style being women, artists, students and intellectuals associated with the political left. The name of the style derived from the loose bow that kittens and cats would wear at the time. Many were drawn to the style in the mid ‘70s, when women fully joined the workforce, to ironically replicate the men’s necktie and reclaim the derogatory term of the same name normally thrown at women. The pussycat bow then began to be associated with political power after Margaret Thatcher, who was a big fan of the style, became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In this photo, Melania Trump wore a pink pussycat bow while attending a 2016 presidential debate, which garnered different interpretations from the public. While this situation may have been one without a desired deeper meaning, many criticized Trump for wearing the statement bow considering her husband, President Trump, used the derogatory term in the past.
One of my favorite activities when watching a political debate is looking at each of the candidates’ neckties and analyzing what the wearer wants to imply. According to color theory, different hues and shades of color are known to change and determine human behavior, such as eliciting certain emotions in people or enhancing the effectiveness of placebos. The color red is an aggressive color, which can make a person look passionate, confident or angry. Candidates in red neckties want you to know they are determined and will not stand down. In contrast, the color blue or navy can come across as calm, trustworthy and intelligent. Many politicians wear blue ties to oppose their hot-headed opponents sporting a power tie or to play towards a narrative that they are for the working class, since many Americans wear navy ties to work.
You can use this knowledge to understand the necktie choices of Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic debate in March. With the two candidates neck and neck, both seemingly chose their neckties to cater towards their goal for the night. At the time, Biden sported a red power tie with small, diagonal blue stripes. This necktie choice could be seen as a way to show how Biden’s campaign and political style is more old school, possibly to gain support from moderate voters. However, the small detail of the blue stripes seemed to convey that the former vice president was still calling dibs on being the candidate for the Democratic party. On the other hand, Sanders’s extreme choice for an all blue tie corresponded well with his far-left and “grassroots” style of politics to show viewers he is the candidate for the working class.
To add two and two together, women’s power suits bring together silhouette and color theory to portray a meaning similar to neckties. Another popular trend originating in the ‘70s, many women who wore these suits tended to choose a bright pink color to make a statement about feminism and female empowerment, while others may have opted for navy or black to show confidence, calmness and intelligence. Additionally, many power suits today have a broad shouldered frame, paying homage to the powerful, padded shoulders of the ‘80s.
Both former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been highlighted for their choice of statement power suits. Ocasio-Cortez can be seen wearing a bold, black and hot pink power suit when she attended the passing of the Violence Against Women Act at Capitol Hill.