20 times women in American politics wore clothes with hidden meanings

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Darcy Schild
·19 min read
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melania trump nancy pelosi
Melania Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia in May 2017; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi oversees a vote on articles of impeachment against then-President Donald Trump in December 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images; Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • For decades, American political figures have made fashion choices that nod to history.

  • Some have worn jewelry pieces or specific colors to communicate their stance on an issue.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Melania Trump, Kamala Harris, and others have sent messages with their outfits.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Over the decades, American political figures have sent potential messages and paid homage to history by wearing symbolic colors or signature accessories.

For example, many women in political positions have worn white outfits as a tribute to suffragists.

Wearing white outfits as an homage to suffragists is a tradition that dates back decades. Shirley Chisholm, who went on to become the first Black woman to run for president for a major political party, wore all-white on Election Day in 1968 when she was elected as the nation's first Black congresswoman.

Since then, Hillary Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, and lawmakers have repped the all-white look at major political events.

Some have used jewelry to convey political messages - such as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who famously sported a "dissent necklace," or a collar that she once described as being "fitting" for her dissenting decisions in court cases.

First ladies have also made their fair share of political fashion statements. Michelle Obama and Melania Trump were both thought to have worn outfits that sent possible messages about diplomacy or other political issues.

Here's a look at the stories behind political figures' symbolic fashion moments through the decades.

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, made a nod to the suffragists by wearing an all-white outfit on Election Day in 1968.

Shirley Chisholm first black woman elected to congress
Shirley Chisholm gives the victory sign after winning the Congressional election in Brooklyn's 12th District on November 5, 1968. Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images

According to Vox, Chisholm wore an all-white outfit to mark her historic election to Congress.

In 1972, Chisholm became the first Black political figure to launch a presidential primary campaign for a major party, and she also wore suffragette white as part of her campaign, Vox reported.

Wearing white as a tribute to suffragists is a practice that dates back to the early 20th century.

White was one of the colors of the American suffrage organization known as the National Women's Party, according to a 1913 newsletter from the group published by the National Park Service.

Suffragists wore feminine-styled white dresses to combat stereotypes perpetuated in the media and political cartoons, which portrayed them as masculine characters.

Many female political figures have carried on the tradition of wearing white to honor the women who fought for the right to vote.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice-presidential candidate of a major US party and wore suffragette white when she accepted her nomination.

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Ferraro accepting her nomination in 1984. Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

New York Democratic Rep. Ferraro was a prominent feminist leader in the House of Representatives in the '80s and was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984 alongside presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

To accept her nomination, Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate, wore an all-white suit. Vogue pointed out a full-circle moment: Ferraro's outfit was similar to one worn by the first female vice president Kamala Harris, who donned suffragette white for her victory speech following Election Day in 2020.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used different necklaces to represent her decisions in court.

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (in 2017, left; and 2018, right) made statements with her collars. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ginsburg, who died in September 2020, made history as the second female appointed to the US Supreme Court. She is remembered as a champion for women's rights and gender equality through her many court decisions and dissents.

During her 27 years on the nation's highest court, Ginsburg often matched her jabots or necklaces to her approval or dissent for court opinions.

For example, her "majority opinion" jabot was a gold neckpiece with detailed pendants, and it was a gift from her law clerks, she told Katie Couric in a 2014 tour of her collar collection.

In her 2014 interview with Couric, Ginsburg also held up a studded necklace from Banana Republic and described it as her "dissenting collar," saying "it looks fitting for dissents."

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, used brooches to symbolize America's diplomatic relationships during the Clinton administration.

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Albright during a briefing on Israel on January 23, 1998, and on CBS's "Face the Nation" in October 1998. Diana Walker/Liaison/Hulton Archive via Getty Images; Karin Cooper/Contributor/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told NPR's Susan Stamberg that she used brooches to reflect the state of diplomatic relations throughout her term in the Clinton administration from 1997 until 2001.

Her penchant for symbolic jewelry started when she was a UN ambassador. Albright said that she was called a "serpent" by then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein — and that moment later inspired her brooch choices as Secretary of State.

"I had this wonderful antique snake pin. So when we were dealing with Iraq, I wore the snake pin," Albright said.

Albright also wore a wasp brooch when she wanted to do "a little stinging and deliver a tough message," and chose crab- and turtle-shaped pins when diplomatic relations were moving slowly, according to NPR.

Albright wrote about her symbolic use of jewelry in her 2009 book, "Read My Pins."

Michelle Obama made a statement with the dress she wore to celebrate Barack Obama's presidential win in 2008.

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The Obama family at a gathering on election night in Chicago in 2008. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Obama attended a gathering following Election Day in 2008 in a black-and-red dress by Narciso Rodriguez, an LGBTQ designer and the son of Cuban immigrants.

Her bold dress garnered mixed reactions — it was likened to a "lava lamp" by The New York Times — but people also applauded her choice to wear a design from a first-generation American designer.

Throughout her time as first lady, Obama continuously chose to wear dresses by Rodriguez, as well as Black-owned fashion labels, American immigrant designers, and young female entrepreneurs.

"I did know that my clothes were making a statement," Obama said in 2018 during an interview on her book tour. "So we decided, why don't we use this platform to uplift some young new designers who normally wouldn't get this kind of attention? Because you can change their lives."

Michelle Obama may have sent a message of female empowerment with an armor-inspired Versace gown in 2016.

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Then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House on October 18, 2016. Shawn Thew - pool/Getty Images

For her last state dinner as first lady, Obama wore a metallic couture Versace gown made of tiny pieces of metal rings known as chain mail, which creates a mesh material that was often worn by knights.

Obama's gown was thought to conjure images of strength and female empowerment, according to The New York Times — particularly because designer Donatella Versace, described her collection at the time of being "all about a woman's freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of activity, freedom to fight for their ideas, freedom to be whomever you want to be."

It wasn't lost on people that the former first lady's female warrior-inspired dress came less than two weeks after The Washington Post released then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's "Access Hollywood" recording, in which he made lewd and derogatory remarks about women.

For her final speech as FLOTUS, Obama donned a red dress that some thought was a nod to the incoming Republican administration.

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Michelle Obama speaking at the White House on January 6, 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Obama wore a red dress by Narciso Rodriguez just weeks before the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017.

The choice of the color red may have been her way of recognizing the transition to a Republication administration, Vanity Fair reported.

Red is traditional of the Republican party and became widely worn by supporters of Trump's presidential campaign, thanks to his "Make America Great Again" hats.

As Vanity Fair noted, Obama only wore red a handful of times during her time as FLOTUS — and one of the earliest moments was in 2008, when she celebrated her husband's election victory wearing the black-and-red dress by Rodriguez.

Read more: 13 times first ladies wore affordable clothing

Melania Trump seemed to echo her husband's "America first" message with her Inauguration Day outfit - a powder-blue suit by famed American fashion designer Ralph Lauren.

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First lady Melania Trump waves to supporters in the inaugural parade on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images

Trump's monochromatic Ralph Lauren shawl, dress, and gloves, paired with Manolo Blahnik heels, conjured comparisons to classic styles worn by Jackie Kennedy in the '60s.

Following the inauguration ceremony, The Ralph Lauren Corporation released a statement about the first lady's outfit that emphasized its traditional American roots.

"The Presidential Inauguration is a time for the United States to look our best to the world. It was important to us to uphold and celebrate the tradition of creating iconic American style for this moment," the company said, according to Women's Wear Daily.

Trump's Ralph Lauren outfit was thought to echo a message her husband preached throughout his campaign and early in his presidency: "Follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American."

Unlike Ralph Lauren, a number of other American fashion designers expressed refusal to dress the first lady. After her all-American look for Inauguration Day in 2017, Melania was often pictured in clothes from European labels.

Hillary Clinton made a powerful feminist statement at President Trump's inauguration with her white Ralph Lauren pantsuit that was originally designed for her presidential campaign.

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Hillary Clinton attends the inauguration of President Trump on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Trump's former Democratic presidential opponent paid tribute to suffragists at Inauguration Day in January 2017 with a white Ralph Lauren pantsuit and coat.

Clinton's choice to wear all-white to Trump's swearing-in ceremony was thought to have sent a strong feminist statement and was likely a nod to the suffragists, according to Vanity Fair.

Clinton's apparent penchant for monochromatic pantsuits was present throughout her presidential campaign. During her final debate against Trump in 2016, Clinton also donned an all-white suit as another nod to the suffragists.

According to The New York Times, the pantsuit Clinton wore on Inauguration Day was designed as part of her 2016 presidential campaign's collaboration with Ralph Lauren. However, she didn't end up wearing it during her campaign.

Melania Trump was thought to have made a diplomatic statement with an oversized gold belt during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

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First Lady Melania Trump chats with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in May 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

On a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, the first lady wore a Saint Laurent python belt that later sold out on Net-a-Porter after she was photographed in it.

CNN reporter and author of "Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography" Kate Bennett previously told Insider's Ellen Cranley that the former first lady's statement belt and other metallic accessories seemed to be sending a message about gold as a commodity.

The accessories were "as if to say, 'Hey, Saudi Arabia, friend. We like gold, you like gold, we get you. Everything is cool,'" Bennett said.

Read more: Melania Trump's post-presidency outfit transformation is a whole mood

Melania Trump may have sent a message of meaning business when she wore a menswear-inspired suit in 2017.

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Donald Trump and Melania Trump welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau at the White House on October 11, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The former first lady, who also wore a pantsuit in her official White House portrait, may have worn the corporate-inspired silhouette to show that she means business, stylist Melissa Garcia previously told "Today."

The Ralph Lauren pantsuit she wore to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau to Washington, DC, in 2017 got people's attention for its nostalgic skinny tie and masculine look.

Insider's Ellen Cranley also pointed out that according to Kate Bennett's book, "Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography," the former first lady's menswear outfits may have had something to do with Bennett's "theory that when the Trumps are unhappy with each other, Melania wears menswear — because Trump notoriously likes to see women in tight, short, ubersexy and feminine dresses."

In 2019, a record number of female, Black, and Hispanic officials joined Congress - making lawmakers' State of the Union suffragette-white dress code especially meaningful.

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Lawmakers attend President Donald Trump's State of the Union at the Capitol on February 5, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

This wasn't the first year that congresspeople made a statement in all-white outfits. In 2017, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted a picture of Democratic congresswomen wearing white to Trump's first State of the Union Address, saying: "Tonight, our Democratic #WomenWearWhite in support of women's rights -- in spite of a @POTUS who doesn't!"

In 2019, the monochromatic wave of suffragette white that filled the US Capitol during Trump's State of the Union remarks was even more symbolic, as a record number of women were sworn into Congress that January.

That year, many lawmakers spoke about why they chose to dress in the symbolic color.

For example, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at the time: "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."

Insider's Eliza Relman reported that at least one Republican lawmaker joined in on wearing white to the 2019 address.

The same year, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in as the youngest congresswoman, and her outfit was a nod to those who broke barriers before her.

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Ocasio-Cortez takes the oath during the first session of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol on January 3, 2019. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When she was sworn into the House of Representatives in January 2019, Ocasio-Cortez celebrated her heritage and paid homage to female political figures who came before her.

She wore an all-white suit — thought to be a nod to the suffragists — as well as hoop earrings and red lipstick, which she later said were inspired by Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet the day after being sworn in that when Sotomayor was in the process of being confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2009, she was advised to wear neutral nail polish "to avoid scrutiny," but she wore red polish instead.

"Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they're dressing like a Congresswoman," Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Melania Trump sparked controversy when she wore a jacket saying "I really don't care, do u?" to visit immigrant children in Texas in 2018.

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First Lady Melania Trump departs Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on June 21, 2018. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The "I really don't care, do u?" jacket, which was reportedly from Zara, caused backlash when the first lady was pictured wearing it to a visit with immigrant children in Texas in 2018.

The first lady's visit took place amid controversy over President Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

People called the message on Melania's jacket insensitive, and others suggested it could have been an intentional political move to show that she would continue to defy what's expected of her as first lady.

Melania later said in an ABC News interview that the jacket was "kind of a message."

"It was for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me," the former first lady told ABC News. "I want to show them I don't care. You could criticize whatever you want to say. But it will not stop me to do what I feel is right."

In 2020, AOC reclaimed the color red with her blazer and matching lipstick, which she wore during a speech directed toward a Republican representative.

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in July 2020. CSPAN

In July 2020, Ocasio-Cortez addressed Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida for verbally accosting her outside the steps of Capitol Hill and calling her a "f---ing b----," an exchange that was first reported by The Hill.

Ocasio-Cortez wore a scarlet-red blazer and matching lipstick when she took the floor to respond to Yoho's speech. She later told Vanity Fair that she "had a little war paint on that day."

Kate Haulman, an associate professor at American University who teaches early North American and US history as well as women's and gender history, previously told Insider that she thought Ocasio-Cortez seemed to reclaim the color red.

"Red becomes so associated with the Republican party, and also because of the 'MAGA' hats," Haulman said. "I thought it was her way of saying, 'I'm reclaiming this color.' It was such a vibrant shade, too. I thought it was a real statement."

Jill Biden sent a clear message by wearing "Vote" shoes while she cast her ballot for the 2020 presidential election.

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Jill Biden departs the state building after voting in the Delaware state primary in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 14. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images; Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In September 2020, the now-first lady shared a message about the civic duty of voting. She not only set an example by casting her own ballot — but she also wore a pair of over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots with the word "Vote" etched down the calf.

She was pictured wearing the shoes while leaving the Delaware State Building in Wilmington, Delaware.

Biden's Stuart Weitzman boots were made in partnership with the nonprofit I am a voter, and profits from the sales of the limited-edition boots were donated to the organization.

Kamala Harris gave her first address to Americans as vice president-elect wearing an outfit full of symbolic nods to suffragettes and feminism.

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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on November 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Harris gave her first speech as the nation's first female, Black, and South Asian vice president-elect wearing an all-white suit from the female-founded brand Carolina Herrera.

Her outfit also included a blouse with a necktie style known as a lavallière that's more popularly called a "pussy bow."

The blouse style has become a symbol of female empowerment of sorts. The "pussy bow" style rose to popularity in the '80s when more American women began taking on executive positions in corporate environments and led to the creation of new, feminine versions of clothes that were adapted from menswear, according to Quartz.

Harris' outfit was also an example of monochromatic dressing, which often signifies "celebration in the Black community," according to a tweet from costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie.

Read more: 9 of Vice President Kamala Harris' best style moments

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore the same outfit for President Trump's impeachment hearings in 2019 and 2021.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore the same outfit to both of Trump's impeachments. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Pelosi made a statement by recycling a dark-colored outfit in January to mark Trump's second impeachment.

When the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump in 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in 2019, Pelosi wore a dark-colored dress with a gold necklace. She also wore a brooch shaped like the mace of the House of Representatives.

Her office confirmed to MSNBC that she wore the same ensemble with a face mask — minus the brooch — in January while impeaching Trump a second time for "incitement of insurrection."

Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president wearing an all-purple outfit that may have symbolized bipartisanship.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff arrive to the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today's inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff arrive at the inauguration at the US Capitol on January 20, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Harris' outfit for Inauguration Day on January 20 was a monochromatic purple outfit by two Black designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson.

Harris' outfit was not only her way of shining a light on American designers of color, but the vibrant purple hue was thought to be symbolic, too.

Her choice to wear purple may have been a nod to the suffragists, as it's also one of the colors of the National Woman's Party, an American suffrage organization.

The color of Harris' outfit could have also been a nod to bipartisanship, as purple is the combination of red (representing the Republican party) and blue (symbolic of the Democratic party). Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also wore purple on Inauguration Day.

Additionally, purple was one of the colors, along with red and yellow, that Harris used in her presidential campaign. Harris' campaign previously confirmed that the color scheme was inspired by those of Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign.

The vice president also wore a pearl necklace, a symbol of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

For the Inauguration Day ceremony, Jill Biden wore an outfit made by an emerging designer in New York City, who said the first lady's look signified "trust, confidence, and stability."

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First lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden both on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol Building. PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP via Getty Images

First lady Jill Biden stood by President Joe Biden's side on January 20 wearing an ocean-blue coat and dress from a New York City-based luxury brand, Markarian.

Markarian's designer, Alexandra O'Neill, told Insider that Biden's outfit was meant to communicate a message of "trust, confidence, and stability."

O'Neill also said that Biden's choice to wear an outfit from an emerging designer at the inauguration ceremony shows that the first lady "recognizes the power and impact" her style statements can have on up-and-coming brands.

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