When Rep.-elect Cori Bush of Missouri considered the cost of the new wardrobe she would need as a member of Congress, she decided it was time to hit the thrift stores.
“The reality of being a regular person going to Congress is that it’s really expensive to get the business clothes I need for the Hill. So I’m going thrift shopping tomorrow,” Bush tweeted Tuesday night.
It struck a nerve.
Within a day, the tweet had taken off, with responses from several other congresswomen who candidly shared tips on how to find affordable outfits.
“Somali shops in my district have the best scarves on a budget, will get you some to spice up any wardrobe. I specialize in $50 or less outfits,” wrote Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who added that she often thrifts her outfits.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) chimed in, saying: “Cori, I still wear some of my maternity clothes under those blazers. P.S. I get the most compliments from the clothes I got from thrift shops.”
Fellow U.S. Rep.-elect Nikema Williams from Georgia said she had to go on a “Ross Run.” Pam Keith, a candidate for Congress in Florida who lost, said she uses rental clothing company Rent the Runway for special events.
Bush’s tweet underscores the challenges women face dressing for professional politics — and how hard it can be to pay for it.
“It is very real. And we know it does start when you are campaigning,” said A’shanti F. Gholar, president of Emerge, an organization dedicated to recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office. “Those are things that women are always going to have to unfortunately deal with. We are judged differently on our appearance.”
Bush’s nontraditional path to Congress reflects the changing makeup of Congress. She’s not the product of Ivy League schools or a career politician. She’s a single mother who has spent time being homeless, and a woman who has worked as a nurse, pastor and activist. Her ascension to Congress while maintaining her own sense of style — she often sports T-shirts and jeans at Black Lives Matter protests, wears her hair in braids and accessorizes with big earrings — may herald changing times.
“She is going to be on the House floor fighting for the people in Missouri. But she’s also going to be out there in her protest clothes as well. And it’s something people are going to have to get used to, that these women are not from the super-uber-upper class, they don’t have family money,” Gholar said. “These are real people in Congress. So that means that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to figure out when the Macy’s sale is so I can get these things.”
The costs of clothes to run for office — which are generally higher for women than for men — can be prohibitive.
In fact, when the clothing brand M.M. LaFleur launched a #ReadytoRun initiative to loan clothing to women seeking office, more than 1,000 women applied.
The company was able to provide clothing to 275 female candidates, said Callie Kant, M.M. LaFleur’s vice president of brand and creative.
It’s nothing new that women are held to different standards for their appearance than men, who can throw on the same dark suit day after day while switching out shirts and ties. In 2013, Janet L. Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, was derided for wearing the same black jacket and shirt to her Senate confirmation hearing as when President Barack Obama announced her nomination one month earlier.
The criticism can also come from the other direction, if women look too nice.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was newly elected in 2018, she was criticized by Eddie Scarry, a writer at the conservative Washington Examiner. He tweeted a photo of her in a suit from behind with the comment, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles,” in reference to the working-class struggles Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on. She was also among those who tweeted words of encouragement to Bush on Tuesday.
In addition to the pressure on women in the public eye to constantly appear in new outfits, services required for maintaining appearances, such as dry cleaning and haircuts cost more for women than for men.
“People do not factor in how much it costs to keep yourself up as a woman. … It’s expensive to be a woman, and it’s easy to be diminished by people who like to tear down women in power based on their appearance,” said Stephanie Young, who served as a senior public engagement adviser in the Obama White House.
For women of color, the pressure is even greater.
“We’re playing in a system that was not built for us. This system was built for White landowning men. They never anticipated our participation as women, as people of color. So all of the rules are built around Whiteness. When you enter into these spaces that are still majority White, you are expected to play by their rules because they still set the rules,” Gholar said.
The pressure begins early on the campaign trail. For Audrey Spanko, a social worker who ran for a seat in the Texas state Senate, the attention on her clothing was jarring.
She preferred wearing jeans and her campaign T-shirt, sometimes upping that look with a simple cotton blouse, dark jeans and a blazer she bought at Nordstrom Rack.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about what she should wear and how she should look, says Spanko, who lost her race. At one point, she found a package at her door: Inside was a new denim jacket.
“I wear my jean jacket a lot and it had a hole in the elbow — so a supporter thought I needed a new one,” Spanko said.
She’s not sure whether she would run for office in the future, but she doesn’t have regrets about how she appeared.
“I tried to run a genuine campaign, and to wear a suit or skirt all the time wouldn’t be genuine.”