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When Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson was out campaigning for a congressional seat this spring, she already knew, for the most part, what she would be wearing. After spending time in various roles on Capitol Hill and in the Obama White House, she was familiar with the sartorial rules in politics and the traditional look most women politicos and aspiring candidates adopted: muted colors, long hemlines and covered shoulders, and perfectly coiffed hair.
Although the getup was a bit more formal than what she might normally choose to wear, she went with it. Corbin-Johnson could be seen in standard well-fitting blazers and sheath dresses, mostly in darker hues. Save for her signature statement necklaces, Corbin-Johnson acknowledges that it’s difficult for women to step outside the rigid wardrobe. But she thinks of adhering to the rules as a deliberate strategy — one that she and many other women politicians have had to adopt to get ahead.
“Honestly, the reason we keep it conservative is because we want people to focus on us and what we are saying, not what we are wearing,” she says. “I definitely feel like it’s not fair at times.”
This year, Corbin-Johnson and other women may be campaigning during a historic time — the number of women running for House seats and state governor positions during the 2018 midterms surpassed previous years — yet they still remain the targets of unfair sartorial audits. A report from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that women running for office face more scrutiny than men, not only in what they say or do but in what they wear.
To try to cope with this, most women candidates running in 2018 — from the novice millennial taking a stab at office for the first time to women with years of Capitol Hill under their belts — don’t stray too far from the long-established dress code rules.
“There’s not much room to experiment,” says first-time candidate Lindsay Brown, 29, who is running for a House seat in New Jersey’s Ninth District. She sticks to a simple uniform of dresses, pencil skirts, and blouses, with a carefully considered color scheme.
“I’m constantly trying to signal to voters that I am a Republican, so I wear a lot of pinks and reds,” she says. “I used to have a ton of blue in my wardrobe, and when I was starting to run, I was like, damn, I look like a Democrat. Thankfully, red was really popular this winter, so I raided the sales rack at Banana Republic.”
Color has long been an important signifier in politics, in everything from red power ties to the suffragettes’ white attire. It’s not surprising that candidates still count on particular colors to communicate certain values to their audience.
For some women, especially those who are younger or running without a lengthy government résumé, adhering to the traditional look can relay their political gravity and commitment.
“I’m only 18, so I want to make sure that I look professional enough where people will take me seriously and don’t think, ‘Oh, she’s just another college student,’” says Hadiya Afzal, who is running for County Board District Four in DuPage, Illinois. “I now wear loafers to campaign events instead of my usual Adidas sneakers that I wear to class, and I’m shifting to blazers over simple chiffon shirts and button-downs. I feel like [because of my age] I have to establish myself as more serious when it comes to the campaign. That means taking my clothes more seriously too.”
Putting together a wardrobe also requires a lot of calculation and foresight. “I dress professionally every day because you really can’t take the chance,” says Christine Hallquist, a gubernatorial candidate from Vermont. “You get people who drop in at the office or requests from reporters to do interviews or be on TV on a short notice. I always try to have a jacket on hand to cover my shoulders.” Echoing the sentiments of the other candidates, she adds, “I want people to listen to the message, not focus on my bare arms.”
Nonstop schedules of back-to-back events — many of which can require varying degrees of dress, from business casual to formalwear — mean that candidates might rotate in and out of several outfits a day. To deal with last-minute invites and plan changes, Corbin-Johnson and Brown keep a few ensembles in their cars.
Afzal, for her part, is always making sure her ensemble is movement-friendly. “I’m Muslim and wear a hijab, so I have to make sure that my scarf will stay put when I am speaking and moving because I don’t always want to be adjusting my clothing, a tic that could come across as nervous or insecure,” she says. “I feel like I need to take a few extra steps to put a look together.”
Conversely, male politicians have purposely scaled back on their wardrobes, embracing “uniforms” so they spend less time and effort deciding what to wear. One of President Barack Obama’s famous productivity hacks was paring down to just blue or gray suits.
Unfortunately, women haven’t had the same privilege. In 2013, Janet Yellen was mocked after she sported the same ensemble a whole month apart. “A man can wear the same suit, really, three days in a row and no one would even notice the difference,” Corbin-Johnson says. “A woman can’t wear the same dress because if people notice, they will comment. And that’s a little frustrating. And it also gets expensive.”
In politics, it’s still true that unless men’s outfits are out of the ordinary — wrinkled, stained, or downright unusual — their apparel isn’t generally subject to critique. Chintan Desai, who is running for Congress in Arkansas, summed it up well when he wrote to me: “I have never, not once, been asked about or had my wardrobe commented on while on the campaign trail.”
The catch for women is that even when they do show up dressed professionally, they’re still privy to scrutiny. Oscar de la Renta famously criticized Michelle Obama’s cardigan when she met with Queen Elizabeth II, despite the fact that her outfit was perfectly “in code.”
Sticking to the professional norms doesn’t always become the protective shield many women hope it will. “Even if you do dress conservatively, people still comment on what you’re wearing,” says Corbin-Johnson. She recalls how a favorite skirt suit of hers — in a red and black print with a very “business professional” knee-length hem — frequently attracts naysayers. “People will say, ‘Oh, I don’t like the pattern of what you’re wearing,’” she says. “And that’s all they can focus on.”
In some cases, women’s sartorial decisions are called out to further “other” them from male opponents. In a write up about Hallquist’s campaign launch, reporter Anne Galloway wrote: “Hallquist, for her part, wore a tasteful maroon lace and sequin dress. And her sartorial ensemble was as much an expression of who she is as a candidate as was the venue she chose for her launch and the people who came to support her.”
Given that Hallquist’s dress wasn’t unusual for professional attire, the inclusion of that detail only serves to bring gender to the forefront. “I think we were all taken aback that she did that,” Hallquist says. “I think it could have been as easy as saying, ‘Look, it was interesting that with all this flannel and jeans that Christine chose to dress professionally.’ That would have been a gender-free statement. And of course she probably didn’t even know that she was doing it. That’s how subtle these cultural biases are.”
For Hallquist, the idea of calling out the dress was especially sensitive. “When I transitioned, I actually started getting beat up a little by the transgender community because they thought I bought into feminine fashion,” she explains. “And for a while, I felt bad about it. It’s like now that I transitioned, I couldn’t be ‘too feminine.’”
“Focusing on what women are wearing is one way of reinstating a gender hierarchy and a way of diminishing women’s capabilities,” says Peter Glick, a social sciences professor at Lawrence University. “Women who are threatening it by entering traditionally male-dominated spheres, like politics, are targeted.
“We know [from research] that when women are worried about appearance, they don’t perform as well. Pointing out and constantly scrutinizing women is a way of distracting, criticizing and making them uncomfortable. It’s ultimately like saying, ‘You don’t belong here; your ideas don’t matter,’” he says.
Women of color and those from other traditionally underrepresented groups, like LGBTQ individuals, often face even more wardrobe scrutiny and policing.
It’s not to say that women aren’t trying to shake things up. In Nebraska, gubernatorial candidate Krystal Gabel has shunned the traditional uniform in favor of blue jeans and a T-shirt. “I am running with the Legal Marijuana Now Party, which has its roots with Jack Herer, who wore blue jeans and T-shirts when he ran, so I looked to him,” she says. “In Nebraska, most people wear blue jeans and a T-shirt, so I want to represent the common person. I’m very anti-establishment and I want to signal that with my clothes.”
Corbin-Johnson tries to balance the homogeneous politico look with accessories that stand out. “I love big necklaces and have picked up jewelry from my travels in Egypt, Turkey, and India,” she says. “They allow me to still have my individual style in the realm of a more conservative congressional look.”
She’s also eschewed heels for flats for most events. “I started off wearing heels avidly and felt that I needed to wear heels to events. Now I wear heels as I feel, not because I think people need to see me in them,” she says.
Still, experimentation is limited. Gabel admits that her casual look might not work for women running in crowded metropolitan districts where competition is higher. Corbin-Johnson says she feels some things are still less malleable for minority women. “I think for African-American women, there is still pressure to keep our hair a certain way,” she explains.
“If you look at Maxine Waters, she’s one of the leading congresswomen, and to many, her hair looks normal. But to African Americans, we know that’s not her natural hair and that she has it relaxed just to be taken seriously in her line of work and in the media. And that’s the same thing I also have to do,” she says.
Ultimately, women aren’t pining to ditch the dress code completely. As Brown puts it, “It’s a matter of do you care enough about the people you are going to be presenting yourself to that you are putting your best foot forward?”
But society still judges women more harshly even when they do follow the rules. Studies have found that working women with a shorter skirt hem or an unbuttoned shirt are rated as less intelligent and less competent — even when these slight variations still put them in the category of professionally dressed.
What women want is for their clothes to be enough, because they are. “I’m talking about policies, I’m talking about foreign affairs, I’m talking about environment issues, and people come up to me afterward and they’re like, ‘This pattern is not what you should be wearing for a debate,’” says Corbin-Johnson. “I wish people could just listen to us because we are smart and we know what we’re talking about.”