Politics has always been associated with image. This is especially true in Latin America, where white men in suits have dominated the field for years. But a new generation of women are shaking up politics — as well as how female politicians are expected to dress.
During "The Great Male Renunciation," toward the end of the 18th century, men stopped using refined forms of dressing in order to be taken seriously, leaving conspicuous consumption of clothing and ostentatious dressing to women. It was an attempt by the bourgeoisie to leave behind all the decadent vanity of the overthrown aristocracy.
Men flaunted their power through the clothing their female counterparts wore, though they themselves could not aspire to that same power. Men could no longer dress extravagantly and had to moderate their "feminine impetus", unless they wanted to be considered weak and frivolous. That is why many women at that time who wanted to succeed in “men's” professions had to dress in a masculine way (like French novelist George Sand), with some going as far as pretending to be men.
This story, which has been told by suffragettes as well as through the testimony of women who began to aspire to public office in the last century, is also the basis for the essay The F-Word by Dr. Valerie Steele, director of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The historian, perhaps the most respected and well-known academic on the history of fashion, had already noted her male colleagues' disappointment when she first shared her hypothesis that women had to stick to the "masculine" suit in order to be taken seriously.
Beyond Hillary's Pant Suits
Of course, this was visible in politics in the skirts and pants suits worn by powerful figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, to name but a few.
Because despite the slight changes for male politicians (Tony Blair and JFK both championed the "modern and down to earth politician" in their own ways), the political field is still dominated by misogyny and, ultimately, by the European model, — white and Catholic, where the body must be hidden to give preference to intellect.
The personal is political.
For this reason, female politicians who were interested in fashion, like Theresa May or Cristina Kirchner, were criticized. When it comes to women, fashion has been linked to "frivolity", to the idea of being like Marie Antoinette, who was not taken seriously because she had certain hints of personal style.
But that was before new platforms and new voices arrived that showed that politics can go beyond classist, racist and masculine ideas. It's also true in the case of Colombia, which had female politicians like Noemí Sanín, María Emma Mejía, Martha Lucía Ramírez and Ingrid Betancourt, who fulfilled the idea of "serious women" perfectly. They do not attract attention with their attire; they dress soberly and with neutral palettes. In the run-up to elections in Colombia at the end of May, we find ourselves with elected politicians that reflect not only the demands of the electorate of this century, but also the slogan: “The personal is political”. What better way than clothes to show that?
Ingrid Betancourt during the first presidential candidates debate in Bogota on Jan. 25
Dressing to be "closer the the people"
I remember well the first presidential election of Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia, in 2010. The presenter had invited Adriana Córdoba, the wife of Antanas Mockus (former mayor of Bogotá and Santos' contender in the presidential elections) to the studio. I remember my parents' expression: a hint of judgement because the woman was wearing green Converse shoes. "How inelegant," they both said, much to my irritation.
Later, when “Tutina”, Santos' wife, appeared, they were pleased with her style and her “good taste”. Twelve years later, even she herself dared to wear jeans and tennis shoes and other politicians — with that elite white Bogotá endorsement — have done the same to present a more “relaxed” image of power that “brings them closer to the people."
Fashion is capitalist and if you are anti-capitalist, then you have no right to use it.
The problem is that this look has not come naturally to politicians, at least not in Colombia. And more so in these elections, which were the Lollapalooza of the cringe version of paid political advertising. We saw, for example, Alejandro Gaviria, a white man endorsed as presidential pre-candidate by the Bogota elite, disguised as Clark Kent or Bob the Builder (as he was promptly nicknamed in social media posts after appearing in worker's overalls).
Now, in the case of Colombian presidential candidates Fajardo (of the center) and Federico "Fico" Gutiérrez (of the right), we can say that they are basically indistinguishable. What is certain is that neither of them has been questioned for what they wear, which happened to another presidential candidate, Gustavo Petro (from the left). And there is a relevant factor: If you are from the left, it is much more likely that you will be grilled about your use of fashion, because fashion is capitalist and if you are “anti-capitalist,” then you “have no right” to use it.
That is a superficial reading of political performance that ignores that the subject with power (or who aspires to power) will do whatever it takes to show their dominance — as the kings and emperors did, imitating the style of Louis XIV or Catherine and Peter the Great. Or that they will do whatever is necessary to show their closeness to the people in a "I-am-one-of-you" manner, like Emperor Augustus or French and Russian revolutionaries.
But this is forgetting something essential: Politics is a staging. A performance.
Colombian politician Alejandro Gaviria in worker's overalls
Death of the tie
Across Latin America, there are more and more women involved in politics. There are millions of them, who emerged from the marches for our rights throughout Latin America, with their purple and green handkerchiefs (which stand for feminism and as support to legal abortion).
The idea of white men in suits represents a past that has an entire region stagnant in inequality and violence.
Then there are the women leaders who wear jeans and Converse. These symbols were once criticized, but not as much as the "white collars" who have stolen, massacred and violated rights while enjoying their tax paradises with total indifference and impunity.
So we can say that the tie is no longer part of the future of Latin America. The idea of white men in suits is increasingly despised for representing a past that has an entire region stagnant in inequality and violence.
I will vote for Afro-Colombian human rights activist Francia Márquez in the presidential elections again, just as I once voted for the candidate whose wife wore Converse sneakers. I have always been in favor of the fact that Latin America needs a good shake to enter the future once and for all. What better than the attire, and everything it represents, to do so, especially in politics? I believe in diversity, the power it represents, and above all, the role it plays to scare all those white men and women who look with disapproval at how a black woman and politician dresses.
*Lux Lancheros is professor of Fashion History at Universidad de la Sabana, Colombia. She was a speaker at Bogotá Fashion Week 2020.