by Luca Zislin | Editor
The decorum of the United States Government used to be monotonous; trim suits, slicked hair and firm handshakes. The idea of how a congressman ought to look and behave was a vision of traditional masculinity. President Trump heightens this observation with his demeanor, notably the viral image of him towering over Hillary Clinton with a patronizing stare during the 2016 presidential debates.
This article is not about masculinity or the impact of masculine attitudes. Instead, this is about the disruptions to the centuries old picture of who a congressman is and how that impacts the greater American workforce. The new introductions to the House and Senate present a picture that is new, disruptive and distinctly feminine.
Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, replaced incumbent Jeff Flake this year in the senate elections, making her the first openly bisexual senator. For her first day on the job in the senate, Sinema wore a pink coat with a furry collar and carried a polka dot handbag. She stood out like pepto bismol amongst a sea of black and navy suits.
The commentary concerning her outfit brings to light an antiquated facet of America’s job market; we do not associate typically feminine features of dress such as shades of pink, embellishments, prints and ruffles with professional environments. Left-leaning Vox tells its female readers to wear only neutral colors, naming navy or black. Business Insider similarly warns against polka dots and endorses neutral colors. By completely rejecting such norms, Sinema is showing America that essentially not wearing a neutral toned pantsuit does not mean you are less capable of doing your job. Moreover, you can wear clothing that is representative of who you are and expect to be taken seriously.
Such an act’s importance is not confined to the abstract. “Appropriate work wear” is a legitimate barrier to entry. Forever 21, a seemingly accessible retailer, sells a neutral toned blazer for $28 and accompanying pants for $17.90 in their work wear section. It costs nearly $50 at a low-end retailer to afford fitting society’s dress code.
Now, you may compare this to the similar price points of men’s suits. However, the difference that puts women at a unique disadvantage is the versatility of the male suit. Men can wear the same suit in the halls of an office, head to a wedding reception and then save the button down for a semi-formal dinner.Women in formal workspaces, however, are expected to purchase a separate wardrobe of “office clothes” that lack any touch of femininity and are mostly unwearable out of the office. This is the societal norm that Sinema is - consciously or not - dissolving.
On top of versatility, consider the fact that a man actually wore the same suit for a year straight, only alternating the tie, without any comment. When a woman repeats an outfit, it's a headline. So not only must an aspiring professional woman buy one unwearable workwear outfit, but many.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29-year-old newly elected Democrat representative from New York, is fighting on a similar front. Ocasio-Cortez wore bold red lipstick and hoop earrings to her swearing in. This in itself is a statement considering a 2011 study that assessed people’s perceptions of cosmetics. Participants generally deemed the women with “glamorous” makeup as “untrustworthy.”
As long as society perceives things associated with femininity as unprofessional, women start out leagues behind men who reap the advantage of not having to conform to be deemed professional. This looks like Hillary Clinton’s outfits being heavily scrutinized during her presidential campaign despite the fact that her pantsuits had absolutely nothing to do with her ability to govern. Or consider the amount of media attention that went to Nancy Pelosi - for wearing a pink dress.
Women will have more freedom of opportunity in the job market and in the workplace when Americans stop caring what they wear. This is not a plea to burn your pantsuit in favor of Sinema’s bubbly ensembles or to stock up on Ocasio-Cortez’s crimson lipstick; this is a plea to wear whatever you want.
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