When Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress in 1917, media coverage paid acute attention to her style and personal appearance. In March of that year, The Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.” The article, which was meant to quash “speculation” that Rankin dressed like a man, described her as “thoroughly feminine” and detailed her “soft and clinging gowns” and “high and distinctively French heels.”

More than a century later, research shows that physical appearance remains a point of intense scrutiny for female political candidates, while the looks or dress of their male peers are scarcely factored into their potential. Women running for office say they often feel pressure to look the part lest they not be taken seriously. But the expense and upkeep of a professional wardrobe can be a barrier for many. That’s why workwear retailer M.M. LaFleur is offering to lend clothing to female candidates this election season.

“A lot of women can’t afford to buy the kinds of clothes that people expect of candidates,” said company co-founder Sarah LaFleur. “If it’s in any way a hurdle for these women, it brings me such joy that we can help alleviate that problem.”

In an email to customers this week, LaFleur said that interested candidates could contact the company with their credentials, including name, location and description of the office they’re running for, to receive five outfits selected for them by M.M. LaFleur stylists. The company has received more than 550 responses from women in state, local and federal races and an outpouring of support from customers.

“In my day job, I’m a professional firefighter, as well as a mother of four. My dress consists of either a blue uniform and turnouts, or jeans and a T-shirt,” one candidate wrote to M.M. LaFleur. “I can’t even begin to tell you how stressful the ‘how to dress’ piece of running for office has been!”

M.M. LaFleur is leaving the onus on candidates in local or state races to ensure the donation of clothing is acceptable under their jurisdiction’s campaign finance laws. To make sure candidates in federal races can take M.M. LaFleur up on the offer while not violating federal campaign finance laws, LaFleur herself will purchase the clothing and lend it to candidates as an individual, rather than the company.

Puzzling through the public’s demands of what a trustworthy, professional woman ought to look like is an almost impossible task, said Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. Standards for men’s professional wardrobe have barely changed in the past century; for women, professional fashion is a moving target. They’re expected to wear jackets that square their shoulders (without looking too masculine), skirts that are neither too long nor too short, unless they opt for trousers (which raise questions of formality) and blouses that are flattering without being revealing.

“There’s never a set of safe choices for women because the expectations and messaging around clothing is constantly evolving,” Scafidi said. “Female political candidates have an even greater challenge, needing to appear on camera in different outfits without appearing to spend too much on clothes, whatever amount that might be, and thus having their ability to balance budgets called into question."

LaFleur’s company was born out of frustrations about the time and resources required for women to keep up a professional appearance. After years of working in private equity and management consulting, LaFleur said she was exhausted and annoyed by the effort required to search for sharp, appropriate work clothes. In 2011, she launched M.M. LaFleur with Miyako Nakamura — the former chief designer at Zac Posen — with the mission “to take the work out of dressing for work.” The two built an online brand of unfussy, smart workwear meant to appeal to women of all ages and body types, from wrinkle-resistant suits to basic shift dresses and machine-washable work pants. Tops start at $75, and the company’s best-selling pants retail for $195.

Investors were skeptical that women would pay hundreds of dollars for workwear basics, LaFleur said, and that they’d want to buy these things online instead of in traditional brick-and-mortar stores. But M.M. LaFleur’s performance has proved otherwise: The first pair of pants the brand designed sold out in two hours, and one basic black wrap dress racked up a 1,600-person wait list. The company has dressed Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and The City” star who ran for governor of New York, and Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). Now LaFleur hopes its wears will help hundreds more on the campaign trail.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) applauded M.M. LaFleur’s offer on Instagram earlier this week, noting that she relied on hand-me-downs from friends before she was sworn in.

“When I was running for office (even now!), accessing clothing for the job was a challenge both logistically and financially,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “As a candidate, a large part of asking people to vote for you is helping them visualize you on the job. As a member, that professionalism helps you challenge subconscious bias.”

The freshmen women of the current Congress (which features more women and people of color than ever before) have inspired discussions about red lipstick, hoop earrings and ethnic garb — topics that occasionally have overshadowed their actual platforms and ideas. Conservative critic Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner caused a stir when he tweeted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, suggesting her clothes were too nice for her working-class background. He deleted it after it sparked backlash.

“If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response. “If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh and take a picture of my backside.”