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Saturday, January 7, 2023

January 7-8, 2023: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox’s Guest Post on Senatorial Fashion

[Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox is a public historian, writer, and curator who also teaches in the Department of History at Case Western University in Cleveland. Her first book, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2021. Check out this excellent Drafting the Past podcast episode featuring Dr. Rabinovitch-Fox for a lot more of her voice, perspective, and ideas!]

In April 2022, when the Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Ketanji Brown-Jackson to the Supreme Court, a few Republican senators were conspicuously missing from the floor. Among them was Lindsey Graham (R-SC), once a supporter of Brown-Jackson, who announced he would vote against her. Although no drama was expected during roll-call vote, as the Justice was able to secure the required majority for her confirmation, the process was delayed until eventually Graham and three other Republicans casted their “no” votes from the cloakroom.

While no doubt Graham’s absence from the floor was supposed to show his opposition, the reason he was bound to the cloakroom was more mundane: Graham didn’t wear a tie.

The Senate rules, of which Graham is well aware, mandate formal attire on the floor, and thus it was not a coincidence that Graham chose to appear that day with a polo shirt and a blazer. However, his defiant appearance was not so much a protest against sartorial customs, or a sign of a growing style trend among senators, but more of a safe excuse to fend off the backlash to his behavior. Instead of proudly voicing his opposition, Graham used the rigid Senate’s dress as a protection, literally hiding in the closet.

Graham is certainly not a fashion rebel, but in a place like the Senate, which was never a fashion-forward place, not wearing a tie is in fact a political statement. As one of the oldest institutions in our country, the Senate is guided by tradition, especially when it comes to clothing and appearance. And while some updates have been made throughout the years, especially with regards to the appearance of women, the spirit of these rules didn’t change much. Formal wear is still the default when it comes to the senators’ sartorial choices.

Indeed, the Senate is no different from other realms of business, where corporate attire in the form of a dark suit and a tie has been the default for about 100 years. The suit wields power and tradition. It is masculine and authoritative, and thus fits naturally to a place like the Senate. Unlike women who had to carve their way into masculine spaces and used their attire as a way to achieve legitimacy and equality, men’s presence in politics, and by extension, their appearance, was never questioned. In a sense, men don’t need to be fashion rebels because the power of clothes is already granted to them. In fact, the suit is so much associated with masculinity, that any attempts to offer alternative takes on it often happen when women try to claim it as their own. The suit can be a radical statement, but only if a woman wears it.

Wearing a suit and tie—especially if you are a man—is maybe unremarkable, yet adherence to conservative forms of dress doesn’t mean that fashion is marginal to politics. While it is often the appearance of women politicians that get the most scrutiny, in the last couple of years the fashion of men in politics has also received attention. As younger and more diverse candidates began running for office, men, as well as women, have increasingly acknowledged the power of clothes to convey power messages and build their image as politicians. If for years a suit was the way to go, that has started to change as politicians push against those definitions, either as a form of protest like Graham or as a form of image building.

Perhaps the most notable change in the last few election cycles is the move towards casual clothing. For the new cohort of men senators, from Jon Ossoff (D-GA) to Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a tie is a rare sight. Kelly is much more at ease wearing a shirt under a sport or bomber jacket, alluding to his experience as a Navy captain and an astronaut. Ossoff usually wears more formal attire, yet he too is rarely seen with a tailored jacket or a tie. Even Rafael Warnock (D-GA)—maybe the best dresser on Capitol Hill—who is famous for his well-tailored sleek suits, was seen on the campaign trail wearing jeans, sporty vests with tieless shirts, and even t-shirts.

[Official Portrait of Senator Rafael Warnock(D-GA). U.S Senate Photographic Studio, Rebecca Hammel]

This trend of course is not limited to the Senate. The rise of millennials and Gen-Z, as well as the tech industry that espouses more casual look as a symbol of innovativeness and rebellion, all brought with them changes to the office dress code. Moreover, the pandemic and the shift to working from home contributed to the rise in popularity of casual wear, even in conservative strongholds like Wall Street. “Casual Fridays” have now become everyday occurrence, as companies want to broadcast a young, entrepreneurial, and fresh image. In today’s changing markets, a suit doesn’t convey flexibility, but a t-shirt does.

A t-shirt so it seems can also convey power and determination. Not only American politicians are adopting casual wear. The olive-green military t-shirt and pants have been crucial to building Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s image as a fierce leader. Whether it is in front of Congress or the UN, Zelensky’s new “uniforms” provides a new fashionable language in politics that challenges the traditional power that the formal suit entails.

Casualness is indeed the newest trend in politics, and no one understands this better than the newly elect senator John Fetterman from PA. Fetterman, as he himself claims, is not your typical politician and his appearance certainly conveys it: he is a 6’8” with bald head and a biker goatee, lots of tattoos, and usually wears hoodies and shorts. This appearance expresses his authenticity as a candidate and his relationship with voters. He is direct and connects with the “simple man” much better than other politicians who broadcast a more elitist image. Although he comes from a relatively privileged background, has extensive political experience, and like many other politicians is also a Harvard graduate, Fetterman’s appearance relays the image of an “outsider” to politics that voters find appealing.

Fetterman’s height and body size certainly makes it easier to amplify his public presence, but his insistence on wearing sweatshirts and shorts, rather than the conventional suits, is what really makes him stand out. The casualness of the clothes translates to the ease and comfort he feels with people and how he communicates his political message. This style makes him approachable, human, and most of all, relatable – qualities every politician desires.

[Official Portrait of Lt. Governor John Fetterman, Governor Tom Wolf website]

Fetterman’s image is actually enhanced by his visible awkwardness and discomfort every time he is required to wear a suit and a tie. Even when he opts to a more formal wear, his preference is not for a dress shirt or sporty blazers, but work shirts and Dickies trousers, again appealing to a more working-class esthetics that makes his political message attractive. Whereas other politicians, most notably Trump, also tried to capitalize on working-class styles by wearing trucker hats and ill-fitted suits, Fetterman made informality and casualness his trademark and part of his authentic self. In fashion, as well as in politics, it is difficult not to pass as a fake, but Fetterman brings with his style a sense of authenticity that is rare in both realms.

Fetterman’s casual style function differently from those working in high-tech or other creative industries. Casualness in politics is more than just building an image. In an institution that is based on rules and regulations, legal jargon and pro forma, the suit is a symbol and a marker of power. Abandoning the style then is an antithesis, if not a full-blown rebellion. Casualness means disorder, but maybe more importantly, it means democracy. And that is perhaps the whole point. Fetterman does not seek to adjust the suit, or to update the look by ditching the tie, he asks to abandon the suit, and its politics, all together. When Fetterman wears a hoodie sweatshirt he doesn’t convey the innovative spirit of a startup entrepreneur, but a political commitment to social organizing and working-class values.

To be sure, Fetterman can pull off this style in part because he is a big white guy. Yes, his appearance is unconventional for a politician, but him wearing a hoodie will not endanger him or criminalize his presence, as it did in the case of Trayvon Martin. Fetterman’s gender, as well as his size, also work in his favor. While his agenda is not that far from the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, his unconventional attire doesn’t register him as a radical. He is taken seriously and endearingly because his gender and race protect him.

Fetterman’s political success might bring a new spirit to the Senate. While not everyone is poised to adopt his clothing, his campaigning style is certainly getting some attention in the Democratic Party. In terms of fashion, we might see the young senator’s influence in pushing reforms and changes to the dress code, building on the current trend towards casualness. No doubt, he will have some bipartisan support to loosen things up (at least in terms of ties). More than anything, Fetterman’s fashion style brings with it a new approach to politics and how it can be done. As we expand the range of “what a politician looks like” we also expand the range of what is possible.

However, if the history of the fashion battles in the Senate are any indication, change, whether to the dress code or to the way we conduct politics, will arrive slowly. In fact, at least for now, it doesn’t look like Fetterman is interested in challenging tradition. On his first official day, even though he did not had business on the floor (the only place where rules of decorum apply), he appeared in his one and only ill-fitted, off-the-rack suit, which he also wore for his debate. We might see bolder fashion statements from Fetterman in the future, but so far it looks like he seeks to blend in, not to lead a fashion revolution.

Fashion both wields and yields power, and as such, it is difficult to give up a symbol so powerful as the suit. Fetterman might learn to get at ease with suits and the power they command. But fashion also relies on change, and as such, it also contains opportunities. Fetterman’s style can be such an opportunity. He shows us that power can be gained not only through conventional routes but by constructing alternative images. His appearance asks us to consider our assumptions on who can participate in politics and how, and whose voice and appearance matter.

While fashion is maybe not the most important thing on politicians’ agendas, it is still a tool through which political statements are conveyed and utilized. Fashion allows to reclaim and adjust old conventions, as well as to rebel against them and invent new ones. It might take a while until hoodies will be a common sight on the Hill, but we should not dismiss the power of clothes to shape politics and to make (or break) politicians.

[Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

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