Clothing speaks in awkward monosyllables and eloquent paragraphs, in whispers and shouts. But on the night of the president’s first State of the Union address, the Capitol turned into an echo-chamber of ineffectual fashion Babel.
For a television audience tuned into President Trump’s speech before members of Congress, his Cabinet and invited guests, the sight of (mostly) Democratic women cloaked mostly in black spoke of exasperation, frustration and anger. But ultimately, it was a declaration of impotence. These legislators, these representatives of the people, these voices of the voiceless, have turned to silent symbolism in the face of intractability and refusal.
As the nation’s legislators made their way into the Capitol, glad-handing and back-slapping, the camera’s sweep of the room showed a dowdier, duller and grimmer looking audience than is usual. There were not so many bursts of attention-grabbing color. Fewer spots of light reminding viewers that while the chamber is dominated by men it is not exclusively masculine.
The women in black did not stand out as a unified force. Instead, they disappeared into a sea of dark suits. They were not visually silenced by an outside force. No, they were proactively mute.
There was a bipartisan strain to the gloomy look. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine wore navy, for instance. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) wore black and a multitude of pins turning herself into a billboard for the evening with so many different messages that none of them was clearly articulated.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) wore black, too, which was a shame because DeLauro is always reliably, unabashedly vivid in her attire. She is always so clearly present. But on Tuesday evening, she was a shadow, an ill-defined silhouette.
Notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, wore cobalt blue. It was one of her signature jackets. She didn’t say a word, but her presence was clear — and persistent.
The idea to wear black was conceived within the Democratic Women’s Working Group. The plan was for its members to show their support of the #MeToo movement, which had boldly announced itself during the Golden Globes when celebrities walking the red carpet wore black. The difference, of course, is that there is real currency in what actresses wear on the red carpet. And they were willing to spend that currency on raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender inequity. How successful they were is debatable. Still, the red carpet black-out made a statement because it was noticeable. The visual message was that something-is-not-right, this-is-not-normal.
There is little startling, unusual or even remotely interesting about a female lawmaker wearing black. Men, too, were invited to wear black as well, which is, well ridiculous because that’s what men on Capitol Hill do.
At the last minute, Republican women decided that they, too, needed some form of symbolic attire, according to a story in USA Today. They would wear red, white and blue to celebrate the military, the flag. . . the country, patriotism, grandma and apple pie. Mostly, they just looked like the few stubborn peacocks in a room gone dark.
The members of the Congressional Black Caucus — at least the ones who showed up — decided to wear red pins in honor of Recy Taylor, a black woman who as a teenager was raped by white men. She spoke up against her accusers but they were never punished. She died at 97. Her story was thrust into the cultural conversation when Oprah Winfrey detailed it during a speech at the Golden Globes. And now, she is another form of symbolism on Capitol Hill. Her life story reduced to a banal little brooch.
Many of the black legislators also draped themselves in African-inspired stoles. What they were protesting or supporting was a bit of a muddle, but it all had the feel of 1960s rabble-rousing and hell-raising, with a bit of religiosity thrown in.
First Lady Melania Trump, finally back in the public eye after nearly a month-long absence, was dressed in white trousers and a matching jacket as she sat in her box surrounded by guests. She had worn a black Michael Kors suit when her husband delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2017. Perhaps white was a meant as a study in contrasts. Perhaps it was a nod to the suffrage movement.
Or maybe, it was the only color left that had not been co-opted in all the fashion cacophony.