Cori Bush—a nurse, activist, and pastor from Missouri—unseated a 20-year incumbent to become her district’s next representative. As she got ready to head to Congress this month, she made headlines by tweeting that her Washington, D.C., wardrobe will be sourced mainly from thrift shops. The incoming congresswoman talks to Glamour about her personal style philosophy, her financial reality, and her best thrifting tips.
I campaigned mostly in jeans and a T-shirt. I wanted to break up the [idea] that in order to run for office you need to be a well-dressed, wealthy politician. I dressed the same way I like to dress as a protester or even as a nurse—like I’m ready for anything.
But the truth is, I’m a stiletto person! I love satin. I love sparkle. I’m happy to wear a suit—but then I have to have some really fly shoes. Or big hoops. Whenever you see me, you’ll see something sparkle, whether it’s my nails or my jewelry or my blouse—I always have to have a little sparkle.
I’m a member-elect, which means that I won my campaign but I haven’t been sworn into Congress yet. I’m not being paid by my campaign, and I can’t get another job, because I have to go to orientation. On top of all that, I’m moving to D.C., which comes with its own costs. The system is not set up for regular people to be able to do this. At the same time, going into orientation, I realized I couldn’t just keep switching out the same four blazers! I needed some other options. And that's where thrifting comes in.
As women, we pay this unspoken fee, a kind of pink tax, just to be considered “presentable.” There’s so much that we have to buy. I mean, I’m happy to wear a dress. But then when I wear a dress, you think I have to wear some type of tights or stockings. I love shoes, but you want me to wear a heel, and sometimes I’d rather wear tennis shoes because I have to walk around a lot. People think not wearing makeup means you’re not presentable. And then there’s jewelry, because that’s “part of the look.” And then your hair, constant maintenance on hair. And then your nails! It’s a lot.
I’ve always shopped in thrift stores, so this wasn’t anything new for me. As a kid, we would get together a couple Saturdays a month and we would go to the thrift store. My grandmother would tell us: Whatever you see in here that you want, you can have. Toys, clothes, whatever, if you want it, you can have it. It was amazing to me—I didn’t really understand the difference between thrifted and regular. And when we got older, resale shops and consignment shops became a way to supplement.
When I had my children, I had two kids within 11 months. So what we did is: We went to a resale shop that was just for babies and got their entire wardrobes—we’re talking about 25 cents for a onesie and 99 cents for an outfit. I remember, I laid out all of my kids’ clothes and they each had three outfits per day for a month and a half! My son was born premature—he weighed one pound and three ounces, and he spent four months in the hospital. His doctor said that if I worked before my son was a year old, they could charge me with medical neglect. I didn’t have the income. So for me, the thrift store wasn’t a hardship. It was like, Oh my God, this is fantastic! I got their furniture from there, their beds, everything.
My thrifting process looks like this: Often the first thing I want to look at is the furniture. Do they have some stuff that’s really gently used? Do I need odds and ends, like a corner table? I’ll see if they have some nice plants or centerpieces, decorations for my home. Then I’ll go check the housewares, see if there’s anything that I need. I’ll check the shoes; I’ll just glance over to see if there’s anything that looks like something I would want—I just glance.
Then I go over to the bedding—I’m looking at quilts, I’m looking at comforters, big blankets. Then I look at the coats and the jackets if it’s that season. And then I head over to look at either scrubs or suits and blazers. I always end up at least looking at blazers when I’m in the thrift stores. Then I look at jewelry because sometimes you can find some real treasures that people don’t even realize are really valuable.
Quality grabs my eye. I’m always the person who pulls the $7 thing off the rack at the thrift store, not the 99-cent thing. I look for heavier material. You can just tell from even the shoulder how well a piece of clothing is put together. I look at the length from the neck to the shoulder, how it’s hanging on the hanger, and the stitching. If I grab a shirt off the rack, chances are it’s the $7 one, not the 99-cent one. I’ve gotten some amazing blazers, some really bad blazers. I have this pair of name-brand boots that had to be about $300 in the store; I think I got them for, like, $17. I often go to the Plato’s Closet that’s in my community—I have a couple of Coach purses that I love from there, that I got for, like, $22.
I gained quite a bit of weight after I was hospitalized during the coronavirus spike in March, and that wiped out a lot of the clothes I used to use to dress up. Plus, being a nurse, most of my clothes were scrubs or movement clothes—a lot of T-shirts and jeans—so now any few dollars I get, I try to buy odds and ends.
Right now I’m still buying things that are easily accessible or that I can handle financially, but once I’m in a place where I’m a little more settled and I’ve had a paycheck or two, then I can really kind of think about: Okay, this is how I’m gonna present myself. I see myself at some point wearing my movement T-shirts under my blazer. But I also like to dress up when I want to. So just trying to fuse the two. I’m still working on what’s comfortable for me. Because of the way my body is shaped, I would love to have my suits more tailored. I have a cousin who made my dress for election night. Even having her take my suits and just kind of tighten them up, make them to really fit me, that kind of thing—that’s what I’m looking for.
I’m sure that some people think it’s not appropriate for a congresswoman-elect to be shopping in thrift stores. But I don’t come from generational wealth. I don’t come from money. So I have to do what I have to do, and I’m not ashamed of that. Congress is supposed to be representative of the people—in my district we have thrift stores and retail shops and consignment shops all over, and people shop at them, and so I am just like the people in my district. I am of the people, whether I’m wearing scrubs, stilettos, or suits.
And I always, always have a little sparkle.
Originally Appeared on Glamour