Fashion’s resort collection showings did not stop on Thursday for the James Comey hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Yet, industry individuals were not immune to the fashion choices of the Committee, particularly Senator Dianne Feinstein – one of three women on the Committee. Senator Feinstein opted for a seersucker jacket for the highly-anticipated hearing, which is part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and ties with President Donald Trump’s own campaign team.
Thursday’s hearing coincided with what happens to be National Seersucker Day. An annual event, which was introduced in 1996 by Senator Feinstein and Senator Bill Cassidy, “celebrates the camaraderie of the U.S. Senate and American-made products,” according to Senator Cassidy. “Seersucker suits originated in Louisiana, but are now worn across the country and I am proud to continue this tradition alongside my colleague Senator Feinstein,” he further held earlier this year.
Senator Feinstein’s outfit choice for former FBI director Mr. Comey’s testimony was striking for another reason. It speaks to the often overlooked and/or undermined fact that individuals’ – particularly women’s – interest in fashion can, in fact, co-exist with interests in “more serious” matters. It is also demonstrative of the fact that an interest in fashion does not otherwise diminish the work and other pursuits of intelligent, qualified and powerful women.
Nonetheless, the narrative that fashion is “just” fashion or that it is somehow indicative of “unserious” women has long-existed. As Princeton University English professor Elaine Showalter in wrote 1997, “My passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” Years prior, in 1978, fashion critic Kennedy Fraser wrote in The New Yorker, fashion – and the act of discussing it – can seem almost furtive or trivial, something beneath debate or intellectual content. In her article, entitled, “The Fashionable Mind,” Fraser stated, “Fashion tends to diminish all that it touches.”
And Ms. Fraser is not wrong. Fashion and brainpower, and a penchant for fashion and interests in other, more traditionally respected, fields or endeavors – should not be mutually exclusive. Yes, the prevalence of headlines that tend dominate some of the popular fashion press (think: “5 Nail Trends That Will Become Your Signature Color,” “Bella Hadid Explains how to Take a Great Selfie,” and “What Happens When Models Become Fashion Designers”) arguably reflect poorly on women and on fashion as a sector. These articles seem suggest that: 1) Women may not be interested in more substantive topics or approaches to fashion; and 2) It can be difficult – or impossible – discuss fashion in a intelligent way or that it cannot be used in meaningful or significant ways.
Neither of these points, however, are merited. It is worth acknowledging, of course, that nail trends objectively do not rise to the level of importance as economic policy, for instance, but women – and their intellect – should not be diminished if they are interested in such matters. They can – and do – have other interests, and as a matter of fact, fashion – a global, trillion-dollar industry and in many cases, an art form – does not merely play the role of trends or take the form of mindless reading on mainstream fashion blogs.
In fact, history has shown how women have successfully followed and utilized fashion for their own benefit for centuries. As noted by Ms. Magazine, “When the rhetoric of equality fell on deaf ears, suffragists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made quite literal fashion statements. Green, white and violet jewelry was a favored suffragist accessory, but not because of any aesthetic imperative: The first letters of each color — G, W, V— was shorthand for ‘Give Women Votes.’”
A century later, in the 1980’s, women looked to traditionally masculine styles in an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling. So-called career women practiced power dressing, including tailored skirt suits complete with exaggerated shoulder pads, thereby approximating the silhouette of the professional male executive.
There are countless other examples, and Senator Feinstein – who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992 and formerly held the positon of Chair of the Intelligence Committee – is the latest example of women wearing (and showing an interest in fashion) and not allowing it to wear them down. Her discourse – and inherent legal and policy-based knowledge and experience – during Thursday’s hearing was certainly not diminished by her attire, and if she wants to read about summertime nail trends or learn how to take a better selfie in her free time, she can do that, too.