Campaign Trail Fashion: The Wardrobe of a Female Politician

Fashion Advice

If Melania’s jacket proved anything it’s that people judge what we wear and make decisions on our reasoning for our sartorial choices. When you’re in the public eye, it’s imperative to portray an image that matches your message and look for ways to control your narrative.

Wardrobe Oxygen is about helping women find their personal style, to learn how to dress their exterior to match their interior, but also to control their narrative. Our attire is the book jacket for the novel which is our life.

Since the 2016 presidential election, there has been an influx of women running for political office. Many of these women have never been in such a position, have not had a career in such a field. Chatting with my friend Rosana Vollmerhausen, Owner and Chief Stylist for DC Style Factory, we wanted to find a way to use our “powers” for good and help women win elections. Rosana has experience dressing politicians and I have experience building capsule wardrobes; together we created a sample capsule wardrobe for a woman running for political office. We wanted to focus on fit and versatility so we created a simple, classic capsule that would fit a range of economic levels, ages, sizes, and locations in this country. We held sessions with women running for office, received feedback, and provided one-on-one consultation with these women to help them create outfits that would fit their personality but let their message take the spotlight while helping them control their narrative.

At age 28, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a 10-term incumbent congressman. Her campaign style is a great example of our capsule wardrobe.

Two weeks ago, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times reached out to interview me and Rosana regarding our capsule wardrobe for women running for office. It was clear as soon as Friedman spoke on the phone that she had a specific direction for her article. She asked me questions about why men didn’t need such a capsule, why women can’t wear what they want, and used established politicians like Hillary Clinton as examples. I explained that our capsule wardrobe is not for the established politician but for the fed-up parent running for school board, the passionate business owner running for city council, the frustrated attorney running for state delegate. For the women who have a voice, a message, and can create positive change but need a leg up to get into the political game.

She interviewed Rosana for about 20 minutes after we spoke and asked similar questions about why women in politics, in this day and age, need a prescribed uniform. A singular quote from Rosana was featured in the article: “Your clothes should not speak for you.” What happens when this quote stands on its own without any of the context of the 20 minutes of their conversation is that the clothes don’t matter. They most certainly do, and that is the whole point of our capsule wardrobe.

the women of Congress

I reached out to Rosana to ask her thoughts on Friedman’s piece. “What she failed to include in the article is what I said before and after that quote,” she replied. “You don’t want your clothes to be a distraction. An ill-fitting blazer or a too-loud print can take away from your message when you are in the political arena. Your clothes should not speak for you before you have uttered a word. You want the clothes to be an extension of you and your message.”

The headline for the article, “It’s 2018: You Can Run for Office and Not Wear a Pantsuit” is misleading. It makes the reader feel that as a politician you can eschew any and all norms of dress. That is not true.

“What I love about today is that a woman in politics can wear a pantsuit,” shares Rosana Vollmerhausen. “There are brands like Argent and Suisstudio that are completely reinventing the idea of the stodgy ill-fitting pantsuit for women that was meant to mask, cover, and make more “male” a woman who is stepping into a ‘man’s world.’ It’s less about a woman wearing menswear nowadays and all about a woman having a powerful, tailored, modern professional garment that is all her own.”

Male politicians have a uniform, they wear suits and ties for debates and golf shirts with khakis for casual events. Women’s fashion is far more complicated; our capsule wardrobe simplifies the process of getting dressed so a candidate can focus on what is important – her campaign. Pieces were chosen for versatility, comfort, event appropriateness, and to let the candidate’s message take center stage.

a collage of 12 photos of Cynthia Nixon on the campaign trail. She is wearing solid colors, sheath dresses, soft blazers with patterned blouses
A few looks Cynthia Nixon has worn on the campaign trail

Last week, Rosana and I were chatting over text about Cynthia Nixon’s campaign fashion. Running for governor of New York, Nixon needs to control her narrative. She is not Miranda from Sex and the City, she is an intelligent, informed, qualified candidate who is accessible and understands the needs of her state. Her wardrobe choices evoke that message, they’re not boring but they’re simple enough to let her message be front and center. If you look at what she wears, it’s essentially the capsule wardrobe that we created and she re-wears pieces over and over in different ways for different situations. Scroll through her Instagram and you’ll see she wears a soft jacket over a sheath dress, dresses with interesting necklines but otherwise simple silhouettes, subtle patterns, silky blouses under blazers or with tailored trousers, classic pumps and loafers with almond toes, jewelry that adds shine without overwhelming the outfit, and plenty of solid jewel tones.

It's funny how Friedman and we both agree on Nixon’s fashion as being a good example of contemporary fashion for a female politician. Though she may feel that we don’t agree on fashion for women running for office, in fact, we do. Our capsule wardrobe is for the woman starting from square one, who doesn’t have any idea on what to wear for her new career, nor a large budget to build a new wardrobe. As I always say with my advice posts, if you know your style, Wardrobe Oxygen is not for you. The same holds true for this capsule. If you are an established politician, this capsule was not created for you.

In regards to Rosana’s input into this capsule, “I dress both new and established politicians looking to elevate their political style and add polish to their public look. When I work with a client, any client, I have to look at where she is starting from and then take it up a notch or two. If you immediately take it too far from a person’s comfort zone, style and budget, it won’t feel comfortable and natural. With this capsule, we are speaking to the everyday woman who suddenly finds herself canvassing on her own behalf, speaking at local town halls, and shaking hands with voters at neighborhood meet-and-greets. She has not had a career in Washington politics. This is all new for her.”

If you are looking to get your start in politics and aren’t sure what to wear, Rosana and I are here to help you build a hardworking, cohesive wardrobe that will have you ready for the basic situations that may come up on the campaign trail.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  • Sarah B July 25, 2018

    The “Why don’t men need a capsule?” and “Why can’t women wear what they want?” questions are so frustrating! Men do need a capsule–it’s just that everyone already knows what that capsule looks like! Women don’t have that advantage. And, truthfully, no candidate can just wear what they want, regardless of gender.

    Rosana’s shortened quote from the NY Times piece could have been so meaningful, if the writer had given it a chance to be. Women have to work harder to keep their clothes from speaking too much for them. Men can wear an extremely bland outfit and no one thinks about it. If a woman tried the bland approach, though, suddenly she’s bland too. This concept isn’t the opposite of expressing yourself through your clothing as framed in NYT–it’s a realistic approach to how far you can and should go to express yourself through your clothing when running for office.

    All of which to say, thank you for a refreshingly reasonable perspective on this!!

    Side note–At least half of the outfits in the Cynthia Nixon round up contain at least some, if not all, MM LaFleur pieces. I have several of their dresses and they are my go-to “take me seriously” wardrobe. Definitely recommend!

  • Chris June 28, 2018

    I resent that reporter Vanessa took Rosana’s comment out of context. It makes me distrust other statements in the article. I have a general mistrust of the media anyway.

    i work for a non-profit agency, Sometimes we work on projects that are controversial. The local media almost always presents our projects incorrectly and misquotes agency staff who agree to talk to them. And don’t get me going on statistics! Numbers are so often incorrect that I rarely accept any numbers I read about.
    Lying with statistics indeed!

  • Nicole K June 28, 2018

    Don’t get me started on the New York Times, or any media coverage. I have watched a politician speak and then read the write up of that speech more than once. I often think, were we at the same event? It makes you realize how often reporters are not reporting. They come in with an angle or bias and look for ways to bend the story to that editorial bias. I read the New York Times article and found it a little frustrating. Over my life I have read so many stories about women not “having” to wear pants. Jeez! Thanks for the permission. What if I like pants?

    As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever read more ink about anyone’s clothes as I have about Hillary’s. Powerful women really attract it from all sides.

    Thanks for another great post.

  • Julie June 28, 2018

    Male politicians do have capsule wardrobes. It’s dark suit-light shirt-bright solid tie. If a male politician goes off-script and wears a light-colored suit, like Pres. Obama did, people get all upset. I seem to remember that people used to say only Pres. Reagan could get away with wearing a brown suit.

    It’s been my experience that in the workplace, people are remembered for the thing about them that is farthest from the norm. When it’s having broken a sales record or having become the youngest-ever vice president, those are good things. When it’s wearing flashy clubwear or fish ties to the office, those are bad things. That’s why I roll my eyes whenever I see one of those “the rules have changed” articles. Company dress codes might be less restrictive, but human nature hasn’t changed.

  • Lee June 28, 2018

    I thought your original post about the capsule wardrobe was excellent and still makes perfect sense! I even shared it with a friend of mine running for a state office (she won!!). It’s harder for women on the campaign trail; as you said, men have their suits and polo shirts and they’re done. I can’t help but think of Hillary Clinton and her pantsuits—she got brutalized over them at times (& so many other petty things)! She was not a dress/skirt type of woman and why should she be? Anyway, any candidate can benefit from your post!

    • Debbie June 28, 2018

      Congratulations to your friend!

    • Alison Gary June 29, 2018

      Thanks Lee, and congrats to your friend!

  • Sue G June 28, 2018

    I love this post and your others on the function of fashion in the public arena. Whether we are running for office, attending a rally, canvassing for a cause, attending an event, sppeaking in public, fundraising, or simply headed to the polls, many of us were not raised with an appreciation for controlling our narrative through fashion. Too often fashion advice is aimed at preserving a women’s place as an object of desire instead of as an instrument of power.

    From the PTA to TedTalks, from Girl Scout cookies to voter turnout, from parking tickets to immigration law, most women find themselves in “the public eye” at many points in their lives and advice on how to navigate those waters comfortably, practically, and affordably is genius. And most welcome.

    Like it or not, clothes make the woman. Thank you for applying your time and experience to this important and interesting topic. Wonderful content.

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