A record-smashing 127 women were sworn in to the 116th Congress on Thursday, and one thing felt overwhelmingly clear as they took the oath of office: None of them were there to sit down, blend in and play a man’s game. Thank God.
Traditionally, photos from this ceremonial transfer of power capture a sea of blue suits and boring neckties, only occasionally — and marginally — enlivened by a woman in her prototypical boxy, neutral “power suit.” There has long been a poisonous fallacy that if a lady likes lipstick, she must be a frivolous human; that if clothes matter to her, then she cannot be an intellectual. (Never mind that if a female politician ever showed up to work as disheveled as Sen. Bernie Sanders, she would be labeled a witch, not a 2020 front-runner.) The flip side of that argument is the perception that to discuss a woman’s clothes inherently dismisses her ideas. In fact, men and women alike have always used what they wear to tell the story of who they are. Certainly Beto O’Rourke didn’t make the rounds in Texas in his rolled-up shirt sleeves by accident.
The women of the new Congress clearly picked their swearing-in wardrobes with care, and to ignore their clothes or write that off as frivolity is to miss an important message about how they intend to govern: as themselves, rather than as hackneyed, subdued stereotypes of what lawmakers are supposed to be like. This crowd of women kissed all those antiquated absurdities adieu — and if they did so wearing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ballyhooed Stila Stay All Day lipstick in Beso, well, all the better.
Take it from Nancy Pelosi, who reclaimed her gavel in a bright pink dress and chic bob, a stark contrast to the staid maroon suit that began her first tenure. It was her second style headline in weeks: Previously, she showed up to a meeting with President Trump wrapped in a no-bull aura and a slick red coat so delicious MaxMara is now reissuing it. Pelosi knew exactly what she was doing, taking back her power while looking both fierce and feminine. She did so in a hue that, surely not coincidentally, echoed the defining color of the Women’s March and with a sense of polish that drew a sharp contrast between Pelosi and the sartorially challenged occupant of the Oval Office she intends to challenge.
Ocasio-Cortez picked a sleek, stylish suffragette-white pantsuit that was a far cry from the dowdy ones of yore — and a chic rebuke to those on the right who might wish she were a little more invisible. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who made history as the first bisexual senator, picked out a graceful gray-and-pink skirt, revealed only after she removed her pink coat with rhinestone buttons and fluffy fur collar, as if throwing off the mantle of Capitol Hill’s staid past. And Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas wore a deep raspberry piece that might have been a cape, a fabulous bit of superhero symbolism for her fearless approach to the Trump administration.
A number of new legislators dressed to emphasize their identities and the particular perspectives they bring to Congress. Ilhan Omar, one of our first Muslim congresswomen, successfully battled to end a 181-year ban on head coverings in the House so she could wear her hijab on the job. The one she wore to take her oath was a stunning red and yellow, properly highlighting this changing norm and the important steps it heralds.
Rashida Tlaib of Michigan honored her Palestinian heritage by wearing a long cotton tunic called a thobe — and then made headlines with a raucous (and profane) call for Trump’s impeachment. And Deb Haaland of New Mexico sported a traditional Pueblo dress. After the oath-taking, Haaland and Sharice Davids — together, the first two Native American women to serve in Congress — hugged each other and cried. Haaland wiped her eyes on Davids’s scarf. Clothing that is beautiful can also be convenient. And their embrace suggested a style of lawmaking where emotion is a source of strength and solidarity, rather than a candidacy-killing weakness.
Clearly, the class of congresswomen on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning came to work to do more than just change the dour unofficial D.C. dress code, but their riot of color and deeply personal choices also communicated that they’re in Washington to stand out — and stand up.
Conventional wisdom says that you should begin as you mean to go on; by all appearances, these women (and their lipsticks) are set for a bright, and bold future.