Fashion and politics go hand-in-hand – here’s why

A recent article on vice president-elect Kamala Harris’s make-up was labelled ‘misogynistic’ and ‘moronic’, but clothing, beauty, and politics have long been interlinked

As Joe Biden passed the 270 electoral college vote threshold and pulled us all out of what’s felt like a four-year-long fever dream, America welcomed its first female, first Black, and first South Asian vice president in Kamala Harris

As part of its coverage of the momentous occasion, The Telegraph ran a beauty feature on Harris, noting her “swishy, low-maintenance hair” and “relaxed approach to make-up”. Published by beauty editor Sonia Haria under the title’s beauty vertical, it was a focused feature covering a specific editorial angle. But plenty were unimpressed, taking to Twitter to call it out for being misogynistic and moronic, and tagging tweets with #everydaysexism. “She’s a politician, not a model. This matters,” Green Party Women noted.

Women, of course, are more than their appearance and shouldn’t be reduced to what they wear or put on their face, but to pretend that beauty and fashion have no place in politics is as reductive and outdated as asking “should feminists wear pink?” Beauty, fashion, and politics have long been intertwined, with certain colours, hairstyles, and silhouettes being deployed as semiotics throughout history. 

“One of the earliest examples of fashion using political signifiers is when the French Revolution began in 1789,” says fashion historian Lally MacBeth. “Supporters of the movement for liberty and democracy adopted red, white, and blue striped cockades that denoted they were a revolutionary. Wearing these tricolore ribbons became such a ubiquitous symbol that anyone not wearing them was a target for the guillotine.”

“Another movement that adopted clothing as a political marker was the Suffragettes,” MacBeth continues. “In 1908, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, co-editor of Votes for Women, created one of the most recognisable political signifiers in the early 20th century, through her use of colour, purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope.”

Kamala Harris herself invoked the aesthetic of the Suffragist movement with the white Carolina Herrera suit and pussybow blouse she wore for her victory speech, which echoed Hillary Clinton’s Ralph Lauren look worn to accept her presidential nomination in 2016. The impact was swift. According to Lyst, searches for white pantsuits spiked 129 per cent within 24 hours of Harris’ speech, and searches for pussybow blouses shot up by 95 per cent. 

“Women are more than their appearance and shouldn’t be reduced to what they wear or put on their face, but to pretend that beauty and fashion have no place in politics is as reductive and outdated as asking ‘should feminists wear pink?’”

White suits have become something of a staple for the women of the Democrat party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore all-white when she was sworn in as congresswoman in January 2019, tweeting, “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.” Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, wore all-white on her first day in office, and Ocasio-Cortez wore the look again for her November 2020 Vanity Fair cover. 

The congresswoman has been vocal about the importance of fashion and beauty within politics. Earlier this year, she advocated for progressive fashion label Telfar on Instagram, after she was pictured carrying its signature tote bag on Capitol Hill, and took us through her beauty routine, in which she detailed the significance of her red lip as part of a beauty tutorial for Vogue. “There’s this really false idea that if you care about make-up or if your interests are in beauty and fashion, that that’s somehow frivolous,” she says as she takes viewers through the skincare routine that keeps her looking fresh despite her punishing schedule. “But I actually think these are some of the most substantive decisions that we make, and we make them every morning.”

“Just being a woman is quite politicised here in Washington,” she continues, something that congresswoman-elect Cori Bush acknowledged as she tweeted about her struggle to afford the kind of business wear she needs to be taken seriously on the Hill. Bush’s newly thrifted outfits may not make her better at her job, but it may make her colleagues think she is.

“Our brains are full of little shortcuts – or biases if you will – which we use to help us make sense of the world,” explains fashion psychologist Dr Dion Terrelonge. “These biases draw on environmental cues, one of which is appearance. If we draw on biological psychology, we know that humans are pack animals, we seek out people that we think are like us and use cues to tell us who is and who is not. Clothing is one the easiest and fastest modes of communication.” 

“We should also consider that being a politician is a tough role; one of constant scrutiny and high stakes,” continues Terrelonge. “A grooming routine, wearing your hair a certain way, and putting on your favourite lipstick can provide a much-needed boost of confidence and help create a sense of preparedness.”

“There’s this really false idea that if you care about make-up or if your interests are in beauty and fashion, that that’s somehow frivolous. But I actually think these are some of the most substantive decisions that we make, and we make them every morning” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A purposeful grooming routine can also be used to kickback against criticism or smooth over preconceptions. At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest president-elect in history and his age has frequently been used as a line of attack by Trump in particular. To shake off the ‘old man’ image, Biden sports a head of hair much fuller than it was in the 1980s, sparking rumours of multiple hair transplants. His slim, well cut suits and aviators feel fresh and youthful, while his pearly white teeth and oft-rumoured botox and face lift help him maintain an air of vitality.

It’s not just Democrats who use fashion and beauty as a communicative tool. Melania Trump’s cool blue inauguration look, courtesy of Ralph Lauren, unmistakably echoed Jackie Kennedy’s signature neat blue suit. Although she was First Lady to a Democratic president, Kennedy’s prim silhouettes, carefully set hair, and penchant for pearls have been adopted as the Republican woman’s uniform of choice – harking back to a time when ‘men were men and women were women’ and the traditional family values that the party places front and centre in its mission to shape society.

And who can forget her Zara military jacket emblazoned with the slogan, “I really don’t care, do u?” which she wore to visit a detention centre for migrant children. It was, she said, “for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticising me.”

Although American politics tends to feel more glamorous and dramatic, it doesn’t have the monopoly on this issue. Theresa May wore a checked Vivienne Westwood suit (reportedly her ‘lucky suit’) for her 2017 Brexit speech, which could be construed as a nod to the strength of British heritage and industry. And Jeremy Corbyn’s bakerboy hat became emblematic of his leftist position – the Daily Mail described it as “Leninist” – while his failure to wear a tie, Terrelonge explains, got such a reaction because of “person perception, the way we judge and characterise others based on their appearance; a cognitive mechanism we use to quickly make sense of situations and categorise, sometimes inaccurately.”

The significance of fashion choices permeates British politics. Coming from a Conservative background, Labour MP Susan Lawrence paired her trademark monocle with inexpensive dresses to help win over working class voters, while Labour MP Barbara Castle opted for bouffant hair, red lipstick, and bold skirt suits because, “Plums don’t fall into plain girls’ laps.” Constance Markievicz, meanwhile, the first woman elected to parliament (though she didn’t take her seat) famously said, “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver”, her approach to style as rebellious as her politics and activism. 

Menswear, meanwhile, doesn’t escape scrutiny. In 2014, Alexander Fury decoded Nigel Farage’s style – all battered Barbour jackets and corduroy trousers – as being “redolent of a mythologised past… a calculated harking-back to old-fashioned standards, to integrity, to post-war patriotism and buoyed-up nationalism.” Fury finished with, “For him, clothes maketh the not the man, but the scam.”

Some might like to pretend that fashion and beauty have no real standing within the real world, the ‘serious’ world. But make no mistake – they’re as much a part of politics as spin, scandal, and rousing speeches and savvy politicians use them as a powerful communicative tool.