Oops, she did it again.
On Monday, Nancy Pelosi appeared on Capitol Hill to announce the Democratic Party’s police reform legislation in an outfit that told us exactly what she’s thinking about. Like her fellow Democrats, Pelosi complemented her festive, tomato-red pant suit with Kente cloth, the Ghanaian striped textile. The cloth, one supposes, was meant as a show of solidarity with the black community that has been systematically brutalized by police. But when the camera panned out to show Democrats taking a knee in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd, the image of many older white men wearing a traditional African textile made for an odd sight. (A photo of Senator Cory Booker, who opted not to wear one, with his brow furrowed, went mildly viral.)
The Kente stoles were distributed to Democrats by the Congressional Black Caucus; Representative Karen Bass, the chair of the CBC, told reporters that “the significance of the Kente cloth is our African heritage and, for those of you without that heritage, who are acting in solidarity.” (The Congressional Black Caucus did not return a request for further comment.) While the stoles are often worn with academic robes in the United States, many on Twitter wondered whether a traditional Ghanaian textile, which is rich with symbolism for the Ashanti people, is the best representation of politicians’ empathy for the black American experience. As fashion historian Shelby Ivey Christie put it, the textile “comes from Ghana + is their intellectual property—it’s not a U.S. political prop.” Wrote Bossip: “They could have done without this.”
The Kente confusion is the latest example of politicians using clothing to convey what they feel they cannot, should not, or will not say. It is what’s commonly called “fashion diplomacy.” It has become one of the most prominent features of our increasingly visual American democracy over the past decade.
And it needs to end.
Fashion diplomacy has long been a part of being a woman in the public sphere: First Ladies from Jackie Kennedy to Melania Trump have worn specific designers or silhouettes to nod to foreign guests and hosts, and Michelle Obama made J.Crew a key component of her relatability to the average American woman. (It’s not just an American thing, either: Princess Diana made a whole career out of wearing outfits that showed her allegiance to certain causes or allies (or her venom for her estranged husband)).
But the current wave of fashion diplomacy became a regular feature of American political dialogue shortly before the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton’s Nina McLemore pantsuits suddenly became a window into her elusive public persona. It can be hard to remember that only a few years ago, it was considered frivolous and even sexist to discuss how a politician dressed—a distraction from the “real issues”–but Clinton, hoping to emphasize gender in a way she’d avoided in 2008, cannily used her suits to express a idealistic breed of professional feminism. She often did this with great success, wearing a white suit to accept the Democratic nomination as a nod to the Suffragist movement, for example. But during the Trump administration, which puts a premium on its members’ “straight out of central casting” physical appearances, clothes have shifted from a way to amplify a message to something more like costume, for both Democrats and Republicans. (Finally: a truly bipartisan issue!) Clothing has been a crucial component of Ivanka and Jared Kushner’s campaign to style themselves as the heirs to the Kennedys’ Camelot, as if they are searching through a wardrobe department to dress for the job they want. Though women tend to be the focus of these readings, men are skilled practitioners of fashion diplomacy, too: Prince Harry wears a J. Crew Ludlow Suit to boost his man-of-the-people bonafides, and Donald Trump’s too-long, too-wide ties are, uh, crude expressions of virility.