reading the signs

D.C.’s New Power Uniform

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

The most gratifying thing about last night’s State of the Union address was all those women in white. Nearly all of the 89 female Democrats in the House wore white in some form, from Nancy Pelosi’s white suit to Representative Ilhan Omar’s white vest. It was a balm for the soul, and for the eyes, when the cameras shifted away from Trump delivering his frightening rhetoric to alight on those congresswomen channeling their suffragette foremothers.

Much has been written already about the bold, empowering newness of these white outfits: how they stood out, how different they looked, the way they’re telegraphing a new era. But equally powerful — and even more reassuring to me — is that if several dozen people all wear the same color and sit together in a block, they create a tableau not of difference, but of sameness.

Dressed all in white, those congresswomen (and their guests) created a bloc of uniformity, dissolving individuals into one sartorial sea. Of course, that is precisely what Congress has always looked like — only with men in dark suits instead of women in white ones. For confirmation, you needed only to look over at the other side of the chamber, at those endless rows of older white men in navy, black, or dark gray suits and sober ties.

For centuries, men have been the “unmarked” term in politics — the presumed, default holders of power. There is no question about what a man wears to be taken seriously: He wears a dark suit. Women have no such power uniform, so any woman entering the halls of government must necessarily stand out — both in their gender and their fashion.

Traditionally, many congresswomen have worn jewel-toned skirt suits, as a way of looking businesslike (the suit part), while acknowledging a feminine difference (the eye-catching colors). A few women in government took this one step further by adopting idiosyncratic, feminine accessories — objects that worked as visual signatures of both the individual woman and the fact of her femaleness. Long ago, Bella Abzug had her hats. Hillary Clinton had her headbands. Madeleine Albright had her brooches. Justice Ginsberg has her semaphore-like necklaces.

Last night, though, proved that when enough women enter the inner sanctum, they can step up to another level of visual power through fashion. They can choose to put aside all the fussing over minutiae — the micro-decisions that can consume all professional women daily. What precise shade of teal says “I am serious”? Which pair of heels says “I am imposing?” It can all be exhausting. If there are enough women, they can simply all dress (more or less) alike — just as men do. Not every woman in congress wore white: Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand wore black. But enough of them did to create a visual counterweight, a mass that balances all those undifferentiated men across the aisle. This may well be the greatest fashion power of all.

Yes, yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looked gorgeous in her particular white outfit. Her choice of a white cape made it clear (again) that she is the new superhero in Congress. But while she was a standout heroine when photographed alone, as soon as she took her seat, she blended right back in. And that group — that visual sisterhood in white — was the most heroic thing of all. E pluribus unum — with a new look.

Last Night, D.C. Got a New Power Uniform