The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Speaker Pelosi’s style of power

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announces the end of an era of power in Congress. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood outside the elegant wooden doors for just a few beats before they swung open Thursday afternoon and she walked into the House chamber, where her colleagues cheered and gave her a standing ovation. She pounded her gavel on the lectern. She smiled and then laughed a bit at their extended show of affection. She was wearing an ivory pantsuit. Her gold Mace of the Republic pin, a symbol of the power of Congress, was pinned to the left side of her chest. In a room full of brown leather chairs, a wooden dais and a sea of dark suits, she was a spot of light.

Like the colleagues who had preceded her at the microphone, Pelosi asked for one minute to speak. But that was a formality. She talked for nearly 15. That was not nearly enough time to sum up her accomplishments as speaker and as part of the Democratic leadership, but it was enough to announce that an era was coming to an end.

There is no greater official honor for me than to stand on this floor and to speak for the people of San Francisco. This I will continue to do as a member of the House, speaking for the people of San Francisco, serving the great state of California and defending our Constitution,” she said. “And with great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress. For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect. And I am grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”

In her remarks, Pelosi mused about both the majesty and the fragility of democracy, the beauty of the Capitol and all it represented, and a faith that is both sacred and secular. Her choice of attire is far from the most significant detail on this momentous occasion, but it is remarkable. As speaker, the way Pelosi entered a room, owned a room and even exited one was a complex and precise blend of preparation, confidence and style. Some might call it politic.

As the first female speaker, she left an indelible mark on how power is viewed and processed. Pelosi broadened the visual vocabulary of what it means to throw sharp elbows. Fashion was no longer a third rail in a conversation about her qualifications and accomplishments because her stature could not be denied. It could not be diminished by an acknowledgment of a well-cut suit. Fashion was not some superficial distraction. It was testimony to her attention to detail, to her understanding of symbolism, to her awareness of just how useful aesthetics can be as a form of communication and a source of pleasure.

The country has seen Pelosi dressed in a white suit before. It has never been a sign of surrender. She wore a white jacket and trousers to the State of the Union address by President Donald Trump in 2020. The color marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave many women the right to vote. It also reflected a white hot fury at the rhetoric, racism and chaotic governing of Trump.

Pelosi sat just behind him during that speech. She had extended her hand in welcome after Trump passed her an advance copy of his remarks, but he did not shake it. At the end of his address, as Trump was basking in applause from his fellow Republicans and shrugging off the silent glares from his Democratic rivals, Pelosi ripped the speech in half. That white suit was like a lightning bolt in a roiling political storm.

If there is any note to take from her decision to wear a wintry white as she announced her plans to step away from leadership, it was that it did not mean she was giving up the fight. Not as the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection continues its work. Not as the twice-impeached Trump launches a campaign to return to the White House. Not after the midterm elections indicated an electorate pushing back against election deniers, conspiracy theories and right-wing extremism.

Democrats wore their white hot fury to attend the State of the Union

Her style has helped Pelosi to be seen in ways that are not always easy for women, particularly for women after a certain age. And the speaker is 82 years old. Her power and her ability to wield her strength with precision are the substance of her legacy. The clothes she wore are the grace notes. They created a cultural rumble, a backbeat of intrigue. They give her supporters, and her critics, the sense that she is not just aware of the realities of her power but also the perception of it.

“When I first came to the floor at 6 years old,” Pelosi said Thursday, “never would I have thought that someday I would go from homemaker to House speaker.” She did not bend herself to fit the role, which she first took on from 2007 to 2011. The role became what she made it. Motherhood and grandmotherhood were enviable résumé data points. Her style reminds folks that the distance she traveled is not quite so far as we might once have thought.

In 2019, when Pelosi reclaimed the role of speaker, she was wearing a dress in bright fuchsia when she took back the gavel. She was not wearing a sober shade of navy. She was not compelled to dress in business gray. She chose a color that was joyful and traditionally feminine. While the dress and its color had little to do with the duties that she was once again taking on, they had a lot to do with the message that she was sending to girls and boys. She painted public service, the grinding business of government, in vivid color. She gave it personality and light. Gravitas comes in fuchsia.

Fashion is clear statement of purpose and resistance for Nancy Pelosi

She made political authority as distinctly feminine as Barbie dolls and tutus. She did so as a woman whose experience and intellect gave her all the clout she needed. When she left the White House following a contentious meeting with Trump in 2018, popular culture was entranced by a picture of her in a red Max Mara coat with a funnel collar. The photograph captured her as she was putting on her sunglasses. The wind caught her hair just so. She had the look that so many women might imagine for themselves after they had just stood up to a room full of men and were now about to get on with the rest of their day. That coat might as well have been a superhero cape.

She was a woman going full throttle, not propelled by youth or glamour. She looked wholly unrattled. She also looked good. On her terms. That is not a small thing. What has so often turned heads about her style is not the costliness of her clothes or the trendiness of them. It is that they are uniquely Pelosi. They do not reek of stodgy Washington. They are not overtly lavish. They are not consciously eccentric. She has not relied on a self-created uniform. They are not routine. They are considered.

Pelosi did not make disdain for style into a badge of honor. She did not allow fashion to become a visible burden or antagonism. As speaker, she was a marvel of legislative skill. As a woman in power, she cut a path that was uniquely hers. Her lesson is not that fashion matters. It is that it does not have to be a contradiction.