The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams, a sea-blue dress and the politics of appearance

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to cheering supporters on election night. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Stacey Abrams could not have been more obvious. Standing onstage in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, refusing to concede the Georgia governorship to her Republican opponent, Abrams was dressed in blue. Sea blue. She would not be stopping her campaign, she said. Not tonight, she said. There would be a runoff election, she maintained, and folks would have another opportunity to vote for her. A “do-over,” she called it. The blue wave may not have crashed ashore for her, but the tide would slowly, surely come in.

Abrams spoke in modern-day preacherly tones — Oprah spirituality meets Michelle Obama pragmatism. She conveyed her message in the solidity of her stance, in her genteel smile and her determined finger jabs. And, of course, in her sea-blue dress.

Abrams, the Democrat who if elected would make history as the nation’s first female African American governor, spoke to her supporters for about seven minutes, beginning by reiterating a rallying cry: “In our Georgia, no one would be unseen; no one is unheard; and, no one is uninspired.” Then she turned to the issue at hand: “Democracy only works when we work for it. When we fight for it. When we demand it.” Votes, she said, still remained to be counted. “There are voices that are waiting to be heard.”

At this writing it remained unclear whether Abrams still has a chance at winning — an endgame that requires finding enough uncounted votes in her favor to drag the front-runner into a runoff. And yet her speech was all about victory, like all the speeches on election night, no matter what the ultimate vote tallies. Has any candidate, in any election, ever said, “We screwed up. We didn’t fight hard enough. We were wrong”?

Of course not.

The election night address finds vindication in the fight, reassurance that some righteous statement has been made, gratitude for the most dedicated volunteers ever, and solace that some truth has been spoken to power. In Abrams’s case, there was a victory in her very presence — her hair twisted into tiny coils, her plus-size figure, her gaptoothed smile and her simple blue dress with its three-quarter sleeves and Jackie Kennedy collar. These are the facts of her appearance. Those facts are not everything; they don’t sum her up. But to say that they don’t matter is to argue that this country’s racial history is a fiction, gender inequity is a lie and appearance doesn’t count. It does.

Politics is tribal. And everyone is duly marked.

When Texas Republican Ted Cruz delivered his victory speech, he wore a regulation suit, white shirt and red tie. It was wholly free of personality, and the room was lit as if for an accounting exam. It all looked very Cruzian. Meanwhile, the defeated Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, conceded the Senate race in jeans, rolled-up shirt sleeves and a lighting scheme befitting Bono.

When Abrams’s Republican competitor, Brian Kemp, spoke to his supporters, he stood in front of a wall of red — his wife and daughters, who were all wearing red or red-print dresses. He opened his remarks with a “whooo!” and a quip: “Sorry it took us a little while to get here. It took the girls a little while to get ready tonight.” The wall of red shuddered.

One could spend an entire dissertation unpacking that comment, but let’s keep it to a paragraph. In only a few seconds, Kemp waved away the might of an Abrams campaign that had blocked his hopes for an early-evening victory, condescended to women, mocked a diversion commonly associated with them and promulgated the idea that women are obsessed with the superficial; while ignoring the fact that, yes, “the girls” might have spent an inordinate amount of time getting dressed considering they would be standing on a stage before a national audience in the role of a backdrop. So, yes, Brian Kemp, it takes a helluva lot of time to blow out your hair, put on makeup, a dress and accessories. What did you have to do to complete your part in this patriotic tableau? Drape a piece of silk around your neck and tie it into a knot.

Appearance is political. And discussing it can be fraught. But sometimes it’s necessary, because understanding how and why we put other people into certain categories — approachable, accessible, intimidating or threatening, for example — helps us understand ourselves.

Abrams’s appearance resonated as a kind of existential victory because she looked comfortable and confident standing on the political stage on her own terms — not those of Hollywood, fashion magazines, corporate consultants or students of history — and without having those terms become an issue or an obvious impediment. She has been called relatable and authentic because of the bullet points of her appearance. Yet much of that assessment is not because of any particular beauty regimen or shopping habit but because her existence is similar to countless African American women who live lives of great accomplishment and satisfaction while remaining seemingly invisible in the broader world. They are professors and bankers and stay-at-home mothers; they practice yoga and go for regular morning jogs. They have spa days and favorite manicurists; they are suburban women, churchgoing women and soccer moms. They see each other even if others refuse to see them.

Sure, Abrams may have served as an example for some politically minded young woman in search of a role model. But that’s just a footnote to her victory. The bigger success is that she has been a stand-in for an entire demographic. She was ogled and examined as if she were a rogue zebra when really she was simply a thoroughbred — Spelman College, Yale Law School — who’d broken away from the pack.

It’s women who most often are faced with the relatability test. Passing it requires more than simply being competent or charismatic or likable. The obsession with relatability suggests that some volatile competition must be defused, a catfight avoided. It leads to the problematic notion that the things that Abrams is not — silken-haired, lean or sinewy — are unrelatable. It churns up historic notions about what kind of black femaleness is welcoming. It recalls stereotypes, caricatures and cliches about black sexuality, respectability and femininity.

Abrams dug those issues a grave. A shallow grave, but still, it’s something.

Whatever the final vote, Abrams emerged victorious because she refused the competition. She refused to be singular. In a campaign filled with all-business black dresses, Spelman pearls, suburban leisurewear, colorful church-lady jackets, boho accessories and finally, her sea-blue Jackie Kennedy dress, she existed: fully, freely, obviously.