Perhaps you think that politics and fashion don’t make for natural bedfellows. But look closer, and you’ll see that style and substance can happily coexist. Done right, they don’t just complement but enhance each other. Clothes can amplify a message, stealthily support a cause and demonstrate everything from outrage to solidarity. Here, we present 20 of the most memorable political fashion moments throughout history, from the capitol to the catwalk.
The suffragettes were savvy political operators. However defiant their actions, they would consistently dress in a manner reflecting the Edwardian feminine ideal. For supporters of the Women’s Social and Political Union, clear visual branding via tricolor sashes (purple for dignity, white for loyalty, green for hope) became the go-to outfit. At the Women’s Sunday Procession to London’s Hyde Park in 1908, hundreds of thousands of attendees wore these hues in solidarity with the cause.
When fashion designer Christian Dior unveiled his debut collection in 1947, Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow lavished, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!” The look in question? Full, swishy skirts and neat, nipped-in bar jackets. Out with austerity, in with refined opulence — A New Look for a new outlook.
A global symbol of revolution, the Black Panthers adopted berets as part of their uniform in the 1970s. The look continues to be weighted with power today. Case in point: At the 2016 Super Bowl, Beyoncé and her backup dancers paid homage to the Panthers with their costumes.
Jane Fonda won Best Actress at the 1972 Academy Awards for her role in Klute. She picked up her Oscar wearing a pared back, black Yves Saint Laurent suit (off the rack, not couture). The activist/actress would later explain that she found the idea of wearing a fancy dress distasteful while the Vietnam War continued.
Katharine Hamnett’s typographic protest shirts have always been a vocal call to action. In 1984, she was invited to a reception at 10 Downing Street in celebration of London Fashion Week, which provided one of her most provocative photo ops. As she was introduced to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the designer opened her jacket to reveal a shirt she’d whipped up a couple hours before the event emblazoned with the nuclear missile protest missive “58% Don’t Want Pershing.”
He might have been there to collect the award for Best Kiss (for The Notebook, since you ask), but at 2005’s MTV Awards, actor Ryan Gosling used the opportunity to alert his fans to the genocide in Sudan with a “Darfur“ T-shirt.
Mississippi’s state flag was the last in the United States to display the Confederate symbol. At the 2016 NAACP Awards, actress Aunjanue Ellis had something to say about it: “Take it down Mississippi.” In 2020, the Magnolia State finally did.
After Eric Garner was killed by police in 2014, a grand jury decision not to indict the NYPD officer responsible sparked protests across America. Among them were NBA players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who donned shirts displaying Garner’s final words: “I Can’t Breathe.”
Flipping the script at the 2015 MTV VMAs, Blac Chyna and Amber Rose wore matching looks emblazoned with the slurs repeatedly hurled at them. A pertinent comment on how women in the public eye were (and sadly still are) treated.
Think of the 2017 Women’s March and what comes to mind? The pink pussy hats that became the visual symbol of solidarity and peaceful protest, of course. Cofounded by Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, the name was chosen to destigmatize the word following Donald Trump’s crude commentary on the subject.
OK, this one is open to interpretation. As head of state, the British Monarch is required to remain politically neutral — something that Queen Elizabeth II strictly adhered to. Still, that didn’t stop keen social media observers from wondering if she made a pro-EU statement at a speech to Parliament in 2017 outlining the proposed legislation in preparation for Brexit. The talk on Twitter? Her hat, which bore a striking resemblance to the EU flag.
The Met Gala has become a hotbed for political fashion statements. In 2018, Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe offered a gloriously frank take on the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination theme with a rainbow pride flag cape from Carolina Herrera. Her aim was to highlight the complicated, difficult relationship that the church has historically had with the LGBTQ+ community.
On her way to visit a migrant child detention center, First Lady Melania Trump unfathomably chose to wear a Zara jacket printed with the words, “I really don’t care, do u?” A spokesperson said it was just a jacket, but Melania later explained it was a stick-it to the liberal media. Many others read it as her lack of interest in the migrant crisis. (We still don’t get it, do you?)
A symbol of women’s suffrage, the Democratic women of Congress wore all-white to the 2019 State of the Union address. “I wore all white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the time.
A tux/dress hybrid, the Christian Siriano gown that Billy Porter wore to the 2019 Oscars won the red carpet. Sure, the glamour was high, but that only served to enhance its potency as a bold, confident exploration of gender and identity. “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up,” the actor said in Vogue. “To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean?”
The first Black British solo artist to headline the Pyramid Stage at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, Stormzy wore a stab-proof vest designed by the elusive graffiti artist Banksy. Less costume, more cultural commentary on the knife crime epidemic in the UK.
Poland President Andrzej Duda is known for his anti-LGBTQ+ stance and policies. At the swearing-in for his second term in office, opposing politicians dressed in a spectrum of rainbow colors to show that — regardless of who is in power — they stand with and by the LGBTQ+ community.
Elegant yet unflashy, pearls have been a constant style fixture among the American political elite for generations (see First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama). Also a fan? Vice President Kamala Harris. On the day she was sworn in as the first woman to take that post, thousands of women wore their own pearls in unity.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first Met Gala was a memorable one. She teamed up with Brother Vellies’ Aurora James, founder of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, for a gown with a memorable statement: ‘Tax the Rich.” Love it or hate it — either way, you won’t forget it.