Power Suited: Feminist Fashion Nostalgia on Election Day

pantsuits as feminist fashion history
My mom told me a story recently about when she was a senior in high school in the Bronx, and there was a snowstorm during a transit strike the week she had her English Regents exam. She walked five miles to school in the snow and when she got there, a male teacher made a comment about her not being allowed to take her test because she was wearing pants instead of a skirt. My mom wasn’t permitted to wear pants to school until she was in college, and even then she usually didn’t because she went straight to work from school and was required to wear a skirt at her job. When she told me this, I’m embarrassed to say I was kind of shocked. I’m 34 years old, and my mother’s story reminds me that my own relationship to pants as a women’s clothing item is a privilege.

What did it mean for women to wear pantsuits on Election Day? “Pantsuit feminism” is a powerful concept in certain ways that my age may allow me to not think about—pantsuits, as an extension of pants worn by women in nonprofessional settings, are emblematic of women entering traditionally male professional spheres as men’s equals. Pantsuits were surely symbols of feminist progress for certain women. Women were, for example, barred from wearing pants on the Senate floor until 1993. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to wear trousers in an official First Lady portrait. The image of the pantsuit recalls for me the 80s “working women” of movies and TV shows like Working Girl and Designing Women—those satirized more recently in Amy Schumer’s hilarious comedy sketch “80s Ladies.” A woman poet friend of mine recently joked on Facebook that jeans are “modern-day corsets,” and that she prefers the comfort of leggings. We’ve come so far as women, in little ways like these that we don’t even realize. With a new year upon us, I’m afraid of where 2017 and beyond will bring us, or leave us behind.

“Pantsuit feminism,” empowering as it may be for some, of course prioritizes the concerns and experiences of certain privileged groups—white, cisgender, upper-class women like Hillary Clinton herself “leaning in” to climb to ranks of high-power jobs—and leaves behind many women of color, working class women, and other less privileged groups. Did wearing a pantsuit on Election Day mean pledging allegiance to this problematic strain of feminism?

Hillary Clinton pantsuit

2016 was the first time I thought a lot about what I would wear on Election Day. It was the first election year when fashion was part of the political conversation. That fact is complicated in itself, I suppose—as women’s issues have long been relegated to the “style” sections of mainstream publications, and women politicians are regularly scrutinized for their clothing choices in ways that men aren’t and never have been. A few weeks before the election, a friend added me to the Facebook group “Pantsuit Nation,” the description of which then simply read “Wear a pantsuit to the polls on November 8th.” I wasn’t sure if I would do it, but I liked the idea—I thought of Pantsuit Nation, in this early form, as a sort of reclamation of the double standards imposed on women politicians in our country; an over-the-top performance by the female populace of what we know it means to be a woman politician vying for the most powerful job in the world.

Even though Amy Schumer’s “80s Ladies” sketch doesn’t touch on all the political intricacies of who had access to being a “working woman” in the 1980s (and beyond), the sketch does more than just make me laugh—it gives me chills. The idea that women could transport from the past to help other women in the present with the lessons they’ve learned is funny when the advice they bring is to ditch your cell phone for an enormous corded desk phone or to call an “analyst” who doubles as a “total stud,” but at its core it’s also really powerful. We can learn so much from the women who came before us, from their insights and from their mistakes. Being born in the early 80s, I grew up seeing the working women in TV shows and movies as beautiful, cool, and, I think, powerful. I aspired to be like them way before I was old enough to understand this desire logically. I played dress-up by piling on layers of purple eye shadow and begging my sister to tease my bangs into a giant poof, but I also played “work,” where I sat at my stepdad’s desk and teetered with office supplies. Looking back on feminist history in the U.S., I of course didn’t understand then what I know now—that the 80s were both a time when women were participating in the male-dominated white-collar workforce in larger numbers than ever before, and an era when the language of feminist activism and women’s empowerment had moved out of the forefront of cultural dialogue, where it had been more present during feminism’s “2nd wave” of the 1960s and 70s. Fashion scholar Kira Craft argues that the very silhouette of the popular 80s women’s power suit—with its exaggeratedly wide, masculine shoulders—is a sartorial manifestation of this political tension. The power suit or pantsuit look now recalls a certain moment in feminist history. What if, by wearing pantsuits on Election Day, we were embracing these garments as icons of the historical moment they represent, and in doing so paying homage to the many lessons we’ve learned since then.


Working Girl pantsuit feminism

From Working Girl

Pantsuits weren’t the only form of “feminist fashion nostalgia” that rose to popularity during the past year. The ubiquitous “The Future Is Female” shirt, made by L.A. designer Otherwild, has become well-known for reviving the slogan first created by feminist activists in the 1970s. The original shirt was made for Labyris Books, New York City’s first women’s bookstore. Otherwild regularly partners with the Lesbian Herstory Archive and with the Lesbian Culture Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y to create garments featuring vintage lesbian and feminist designs.
With these clothes, the earthy, crunchy, armpit hair-waving image of 70s and 80s feminism that some younger feminists worked to move away from in the 90s has come back into fashion, only retro-ized—much like 80s working women pantsuits on Election Day. I bought my own  “The Future Is Female” t-shirt on November 8th, figuring what better occasion to break it in than what I believed would be the election of our first female president.

The night before the election, while my boyfriend and I phone-banked voter after voter in Arizona from our couch, I reached up to the top shelf in my closet and pulled down a giant black garbage bag stuffed with clothes. Filled with sun dresses and blazers and a pair of turquoise velour bell bottoms, the clothes were all given to me by my mom a few months earlier when she was cleaning out her closet. Somewhere in the bag there were a couple of pantsuits—she probably wore them to job interviews in the 90s after she divorced my stepdad and went back to work full time. I tried on a black one with a cropped v-neck jacket and slim, flowing pants. It somehow fit me perfectly.

The Future Is Female shirt

Via Otherwild.com

I liked the idea of wearing a nostalgic feminist-influenced outfit on Election Day—a pantsuit or a Lesbian Herstory t-shirt—because it felt kind of like a costume party. Like dressing up as a tribute to the ghosts of feminisms past. On November 8th, I ended up wearing my “The Future Is Female” t-shirt with hot pink lipstick and a tweed blazer, my “I Voted” sticker as a bit of flair. I was so hopeful for a more female, more feminist future, and part of that hope was the style of it—the aesthetic of having a woman president who spoke the language of stifled anger via shoulder pads and the possible feminist conspiracies of pussy bows, the exhausting song-and-dance of remaining likable, and respectable, and feminine and unthreatening, and having to dress the part without room for a single misstep.

Hillary winning wouldn’t have been the end-all for feminism, but it would have given us something. Some hope, some feeling of progress, of style, some space to move around in. Instead we get the flattening out thud of an administration that will be so terrifyingly restricting toward women, the LGBTQ community, people of color and immigrants and others of the country’s most marginalized groups. I imagined wearing my feminist outfit in celebration on Election Night—I bought the “Future Is Female” shirt partly in anticipation of many jubilant #feministselfies in honor of our first female president-elect. Instead, I wore the shirt walking home in the dark through near-empty New York City streets. I took a selfie alone in my bathroom with mascara tears streamed down my face. I wore it the next day to my therapy appointment, and to a post-election women’s circle at a local women’s space. I wore it to protests around the city that week, and to see Kathleen Hanna’s band perform. I wore it all week with the same shade of lipstick, the “I Voted” sticker still balled up in my jeans pocket. I had a hard time taking it off, like removing the shirt from my body would be some kind of physical flag of defeat.

There is so much to be afraid of in the coming months, years, and beyond. When future girls and women look back on this moment in history, what will they see? When I try to think about it from their perspective, I feel a jolt of sadness, and maybe of hope. In 2016, a bunch of women dressed up in pantsuits on Election Day, in honor of a female candidate who also wore pantsuits. It’s crazy that we did that! We had the rare opportunity to participate in presidential electoral politics through fashion, and it was only afforded to us because one of the candidates was a woman, only because of the sexist conditions that make fashion a consideration solely when a politician is female—and yet, it was really cool and new and exciting and powerful; a chance to be connected with other women as a kind of feminist sartorial Election Day girl gang that I never would have imagined was possible in previous years.

What we can learn from the pantsuits worn by women throughout the last fifty-something years, is that fashion tells a story. Sometimes it’s a story of assimilation or reform, and sometimes it’s a story of resistance. I’m glad that we’re going back into feminist history to take these clothes out of their dusty drawers and boxes, to have a look around, try them on, see how they fit us, and suit us, and how they don’t. 2017 is going to be hard. It’s going to be a frightening future. Where are we, as feminists, going to go from here—and what will we wear?

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