Among the pantsuits and pearls of Capitol Hill, Kyrsten Sinema stands apart.
Arriving for her 2019 swearing-in as Arizona’s first female senator — and the first Democrat to be elected to the seat since 1988 — she donned an exuberantly feminine pink coat with a matching faux fur collar and tote bag with glittering polka dots, also pink, that drew comparisons to Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods and Marilyn Monroe.
Since, she has covered her hair in violet and aquamarine wigs to encourage social distancing from hair salons, showed up for Trump’s impeachment trial in a glamorous cape-back dress in suffragette white, and ushered thigh-high stiletto boots and sleeveless sheath dresses into a chamber that only officially permitted women to bare their arms in 2017 (an opportunity few other elected women have taken advantage of).
Her colourful, idiosyncratic choices have had a mixed reception in Washington. Detractors have labelled her frocks “unbecoming” for a senator. Others have celebrated a woman who is unafraid to mix politics and old Hollywood-inspired glamour.
“She’s trying to send a message that you can still like fashion and get the job done,” observes Corey Roché, a Los Angeles-based stylist and costume designer whose client list includes entertainment celebrities and politicians.
But as Sinema faces growing scrutiny over her shift from staunch progressive to maverick independent — and in particular her unwillingness to back key parts of Joe Biden’s $3.5tn Build Back Better plan — her style choices are undergoing a reassessment. What once appeared spirited and fun now reads to some as a more serious show of defiance, and a calculated appeal to constituents on the right.
So when Sinema appeared last week in a brazenly informal, floral-embroidered denim vest to preside over the US Senate, watchers on both sides of the aisle took note. Paired with black trainers and what appeared to be a stretchy short-sleeved black dress with a fringed skirt, it was deliberately unpretentious and unstylish, the kind of ensemble one might spot on a school run in a Midwestern suburb.
It was also rule-breaking: denim is against the Senate dress code. The right-leaning tabloid The New York Post applauded it for being “relatable”. In a general context, it was; but juxtaposed against the high-backed chair and blue curtains of the speaker’s podium, and the formal jackets of her colleagues, it looked out of place and even disrespectful.
“It’s definitely strategic,” says Roché. “She is doing it to get more attention.”
“[She’s] saying the rules don’t apply to her,” says Lauren Rothman, a Washington-based political fashion consultant, who calls last week’s ensemble a classic example of “entitlement dressing”. “It’s a term I’ve coined for successful people who don’t dress to impress anyone, people who often show up deliberately more casually than everyone else.”
It’s something Rothman often sees among male politicians and also in tech boardrooms, where “the person with the sloppiest ensemble has the deepest pockets.”
But for an elected representative, entitlement dressing is a risky die to throw. “You have to think very carefully about how you want to be perceived as a leader,” says Rothman. “And what might work for you personally may not always be the example that you want to set on that larger platform. I think that’s where there’s a lot of confusion among voters and viewers — they’re not very clear where she stands. And some of the things that she’s wearing can be perceived as isolating.”
Another reason Sinema’s clothes invite such scrutiny is that she says little to the public. She is enigmatic and an outlier in Washington, a former social worker with a law degree and a PhD who rarely grants interviews and tends to deflect reporters’ questions about her personal life (as the first openly bisexual senator, who was raised in a Mormon family and was homeless for part of her childhood, she fields a lot of queries). Constituents complain that she hasn’t hosted a town hall since she was elected to the Senate three years ago and that they have no forum to express their wants and views.
Which makes her outspoken ensembles all the more unusual. Unlike vice-president Kamala Harris or New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose wardrobes are designed to deflect rather than attract commentary, Sinema’s clothes are chosen to speak for her. And they do not whisper.
When, earlier this year, she wore a hot pink jumper emblazoned with “Dangerous Creature” to preside over the Senate, fellow Senator Mitt Romney walked to the podium to remark that she was “breaking the internet”. “Good,” she replied.
The timing of last year’s colourful wigs was pointed. Sinema first appeared in one the week Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey eased the state’s Covid-19 restrictions, a move she was against.
While Washington may remain divided on her dressing strategy, her maverick approach is winning political approval from Arizona’s moderates and its Republicans. Political consultants of both parties have suggested she is modelling herself after the late Arizona senator John McCain, a life-long Republican whose occasional breaks from the party line won him respect with many of the state’s moderate and liberal voters.
But as my colleague Christopher Grimes recently pointed out, McCain was friendly with the press; one knew where he stood. Sinema, on the other hand, is leaving a great deal open to interpretation — much of it through her clothes. If they once implied she is a bit of a wild card, lately they have begun to intimate she is a party unto herself. As a Democrat and an elected representative of 7m Arizonans, it’s a dangerous line to tread.
“Politics is still very conservative, it has remained a suit-and-tie kind of place as the rest of the world has evolved,” says Rothman. “[Sinema has delivered] these moments where you say, oh there’s a little style on the Hill. Then you see this entitlement dressing moment that changes the narrative.”
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