While fashion is a form of self-expression and autonomy, it is also a large part of politics. It can play a critical role in conveying messages that perhaps don’t need to be – or shouldn’t be – said out loud. It is a subtle art, yet a very effective one. It has been around for decades, if not centuries, and plays a vital part in shaping a politician’s image and narrative. Sometimes an outfit can say way more than words ever could.
Without further ado, here is a list of five politicians that have used fashion to either convey a message or an image:
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more than just a lawyer and jurist – she was a fashion pioneer. Ginsburg’s robes held subtle messages, but it was primarily through her ever-growing collar collection that possessed the most hidden meanings.
It began with her collars symbolising feminism and her feminine energy. As she told the Washington Post in 2009, “the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie […]. It would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.”
Since then, though, her collars became known for more than that.
While it is unusual for justices to express any of their political opinions, Ginsburg had no shame putting hers across.
One example that springs to mind is her notorious “dissenting collar,” which she wore to communicate denunciation. After Donald Trump won the Presidential Election, she wore it in court to show dispute and drift from the majority opinion on decisions before the High Court. There were no court decisions to be issued that day, though. This collar became so popular among her fans that it led to fan-made merchandise!
Another famous collar of hers is one by Stella & Dot that looks like a mix between a feathered wing and armour. She wore this for her official court portrait in 2018, with the newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh who was later accused of raping several women. For those reading the hidden message here, the collar, with its spikiness, indicates protection, toughness and severe criticism.
Former United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright
Like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Madeleine Albright had a knack for quietly sharing her political opinions. Instead of words, she used pins and brooches.
When asked about her pins by the press, Albright said: “On good days, I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, all kinds of bugs and carnivorous animals. I saw it as an additional way of expressing what I was saying, a visual way to deliver a message.”
A famous example of one of her “bad day” brooches was the golden snake she wore after Iraq’s media referred to her as an “unparalleled serpent.” Or when she wore a three-monkey ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’ brooch upon meeting Vladimir Putin, as a form of criticism on his activities in Chechnya. Although she said that Putin gave her a “withering look,” this wasn’t the only time she wore a brooch to symbolise her disapproval of Russian political pursuits.
When Russians were entangled in a bugging scandal in the United States, Albright wore a large insect brooch to show how displeased she was with Russian diplomats bugging the State Department room.
To Albright, her pins and brooches were a witty yet effective way of spreading her diplomatic messages.
Slovakia’s President, Zuzana Čaputová
This one is a little more personal because I am from Slovakia and absolutely adore Zuzana Čaputová’s, our President’s, outfits!
To quote Forbes, “Slovakia rarely commands global attention,” but Čaputová stole the show back in March 2020 when she “made fashion history” by matching her outfit to her face mask at a swearing-in ceremony. In the picture of her and all members of the cabinet, she is the one that stands out with her red fabric mask as the other attendees opted for standard light-blue masks.
Because this was at the start of the pandemic, when no one knew how long it would take until we returned back to normal and the feeling of hopelessness was very much in the air, it was wonderful to see a President put extra effort into conveying both fashion and safety with one outfit. It expressed that just because we need to wear masks, it doesn’t mean we have to abandon our sense of style – we can actually have some fun with it!
Former First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump
On the other hand, we have Melania Trump, whose timings for messages via fashion could deal with a bit of tweaking, because how could we ever forget her controversial “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket?
The quarrel over what the actual message behind it was will always linger. Even though her team admitted before that there never was a message behind that jacket, it is obvious that there was a message. Especially because Melania admitted so herself in an interview with ABC News, saying that the jacket “was a kind of message, yes,” but it was directed at the left-wing media that constantly criticises her.
Although she wanted to show them that she doesn’t care about their condemnations, she couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it. She was on her way to the New Hope Children’s Shelter in Texas, a house that shelters children that have been separated from their parents – which many blamed on President Trump’s policy towards illegal immigration on the Mexican border.
The jacket, therefore, spoke for itself. The message behind it heavily suggested her indifference towards what was happening at the borders. Even if Melania apparently took the jacket off before entering the shelter, she and her team were later criticised for getting caught in a lie; amplifying the sensitive issue at hand.
Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky
Before the current Russia-Ukraine war, Zelensky would be seen wearing a suit and a tie when reaching out to his nation. He would look professional, just like a President is expected to, but with the war right at his doorstep, Zelensky understood that his typical, classy wear was the least of his priorities.
The olive-green shirt he wears now and which sometimes features Ukraine’s armed forces symbol has, since the end of February, become a character of its own. The shirt displays Zelensky’s empathy and solidarity with Ukrainians, his understanding of their hardships, but also that, despite it all, their patriotic nation will remain strong and united.
He usually wears the shirt during virtual calls when addressing crowds and foreign parliaments, or when he is addressing his nation. It shows people abroad that, beneath his title, Zelensky is just a regular guy, just like us, which affects our view on the war in Ukraine.
In fact, Zelensky’s green shirt has already become so iconic that it has boosted online sales. It is incredible how something as “basic” as a green shirt can come to mean so much.
Featured Image Credit: Medium.com