Rashida Tlaib planned her congressional swearing-in outfit a month in advance. She Instagrammed it even—displaying a black gown with intricate red embroidery hanging on a closet doorknob—and hashtagged it #PalestinianThobe #ForMyYama. And for the first session of the 116th Congress yesterday, she was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, surrounded by her family (including her Yama, Arabic for mother), and wearing her thobe.
One of 127 women sworn in yesterday, Tlaib was hardly alone in wearing something eye-catching, intentional and deeply personal for the historic occasion. Representative Deb Haaland from New Mexico, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, wore traditional dress.
Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota (with Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women in Congress) wore a bright orange and yellow striped hijab and a white boucle dress.
Representative Barbara Lee from California tweeted that she was “proud to wear [her] kente cloth on the House Floor.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Rep. Omar and Rep. Madeleine Dean from Pennsylvania, wore white in honor of the suffragettes. “I wore all white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.” She accessorized with her signature red lip and hoops, also considered choices. “Lip+hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny,” she Tweeted. “She kept her red. Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.
The thinking used to be that, in order to be taken seriously in the workplace, a woman’s clothes shouldn’t be a distraction. They ought to wear suits like the men; to blend in. Describing the muted wardrobe she adopted while working in academia, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in ELLE, “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were so supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance.” But this is a new time and a new class of Congresswomen.
There was nothing unserious about these women’s outfits: Their clothes said something about who they are and the communities they represent. On a busy day with lots of photo ops—but little time for speeches—these clothes could tell part of their story for them. That’s the power of fashion when it is harnessed by someone who embraces it. “Throughout my career in public service, the residents I have had the privilege of fighting for have embraced who I am, especially my Palestinian roots,” Tlaib wrote in an essay for ELLE.com. “This is what I want to bring to the United States Congress, an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country. This is why I decided to wear a thobe when I am sworn into the 116th Congress.”
Women in politics have long been criticized for what they wear; it’s one of laziest way to be sexist. Now, go ahead and try—if you dare. When a writer for the conservative rag the Washington Examiner tweeted a photo of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez saying that her coat and jacket didn’t “look like…a girl who struggles,” Ocasio-Cortez took him to task for his gross misogyny, first re-posting the Tweet that he had deleted (“Oh, does @eScarry think he can delete his misogyny without an apology? I don’t think so. You’re a journalist – readers should know your bias.”) and noting, “If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside. Dark hates light – that’s why you tune it out. Shine bright & keep it pushing.”
There was a hopeful, joyous, and confident energy coming out of the 116th Congress’ first session. The photos and the clips that circulated on social media, particularly featuring the new members, were full of smiles, happy tears, families and babies(!). The colorful, meaningful clothes were a part of that, too. Woe to be a part of the sad sea of charcoal suits. It goes without saying that these groundbreaking congresswomen will have other, more substantive opportunities to speak to and for their constituents in the months and years to come. But yesterday the clothes did a lot of the talking.