When my mother goes to the polls today to cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton, she will be wearing a necklace her own mother hand-beaded, “a relic of the 1970's and a good time in her life.” My grandmother was born four years before white women got the right to vote, and died in the summer of 2013. For most of her life she was not particularly political. “She didn’t see the point,” my mother says. “Men in power were a fixed thing in her experience.”
My aunt, her other daughter, lives in Utah, where she organizes for undocumented workers’ rights. Her voting outfit includes a Nasty Woman shirt she ordered online. She’s already asked her boyfriend to come over and photograph her before she heads out to the polls.
That their tributes are fashion-focused is fitting: My grandmother was an artist and a fashion illustrator, a woman with a fine hand and a good eye and a keen sense of grace and beauty. She lived well into her nineties, and I rarely saw her without her thick, waist-length gray hair in a neat updo, carefully clipped into place with turquoise and silver.
When I first wondered what I’d wear on election day, my initial instinct was to feel ashamed of the question, as if it was shallow and small-minded to treat a matter of national and international significance, the exercise of my political rights and freedoms, the same way I do parties and dates. So I was thrilled and comforted to see other women wondering the same across Twitter and Instagram, posting pictures
of shirts they’d ordered specifically for the occasion and sourcing the necessary pieces for an all-white outfit in tribute to the suffragettes. On Facebook, Pantsuit Nation offered a safe space defined by a weighty silhouette.
If it was a small instinct, it was also a common one: An urge to find some way to express that there is still joy and energy to be found, even at the end of an unbelievably long, ugly, and often horrifyingly racist, sexist and xenophobic election cycle—and that it can be found and expressed specifically by celebrating in a manner traditionally coded as feminine, which the world takes such great pains to dismiss and degrade.
Sarah Enni, who lives in Los Angeles, is also planning on wearing a Nasty Woman shirt to vote. Hers from by Austin designer Lindsey Eyth. “I bought it in red, with rose gold shiny foil lettering, because brash and clash and notice me exercising my fucking right,” she says. “My dad used to tell me that if I want to be taken seriously, I have to dress like a serious person. I don't always look "serious" (my red Nasty Woman t-shirt is going to make my purple hair really pop), but I do look intentional.”
Voting early hasn’t stopped people from rocking a Look to do it: Lauren Bates cast her ballot in Tampa on Halloween in “my thrown-together Snow White costume because I wanted to be my most feminine self. Full skirt, bow in hair, fresh manicure.” There’s such power to be claimed in femme presentation, in voting for a woman while “looking like a woman,” that some people have poll-only outfits ready. Joanna Ware will be out in Boston “in a pencil skirt and blazer and cute, ass-kicking heeled boot,” before switching over to “jeans and a Planned Parenthood Hillary t-shirt for GOTV work in New Hampshire. Not fancy,” she admits. “But there's work to do.”
Even women who love to get dressed up are practical enough to know when an outfit is not the answer. Ashe Farley is busy raising her young cousins, and will cast her ballot in Mayking, Kentucky, in “pajama pants and Ugg boots and whatever cleanish t-shirt I can scrape off the floor,” she says. Instead of using fashion to pump herself up, she’s got a playlist of strong Southern women at the ready: Beyonce, The Dixie Chicks and Miley Cyrus
will accompany her to vote, and gear her up to post to Facebook, to “tell my conservative town that… I'm not voting for Trump, after pretending not to care about politics for two years so no one burned a cross on my yard.”
Social media has played a role in many women’s desire to dress the part on election day. “Like, I don't think wearing my t-shirt in Williamsburg is gonna change any hearts or minds,” Maris Kreizman, a New Yorker, notes, “but I like that I can broadcast my values in a big way online. Make my former high school friends feel uncomfy on Facebook.”
And after an election cycle in which Hillary supporters have expressed discomfort with and even fear of supporting their preferred candidate publicly — and, with the voter suppression and intimidation tactics being deployed nationally, with some good reason — there’s fierce power in claiming at least the real estate of your own body, and declaring that it will express itself however it damn well pleases.
“A noticeable election outfit is just one way to fight back. Women are often judged for the performativity of their clothing, but they're also judged by it, and I think this is a glorious opportunity for us all to use our clothes to scream F*&K THE HATERS. WE ARE HERE AND WE ARE VOTING,” notes Adrienne Celt, who voted early in Tucson, Arizona, and has been rocking her I Voted sticker as a conversation piece ever since.
There are plenty of women who aren’t planning on wearing anything in particular today, for a host of reasons, some but not all of them tied to race. Samantha Powell, a black woman who lives in Los Angeles, notes that “there is a general ambivalence when it comes to Hillary Clinton, especially for [non-white] women in their 30s and older… Many will never forget, and some will never be able to forgive, the super predator moment despite the fact that she has apologized. People change… but some wounds are deep and the ghost of that pain lingers. So the idea of wearing a pantsuit, which some now see as her signature look, causes feelings ranging from discomfort to nausea.” She points to the
#GirlIGuessImWithHer hashtag as a useful collection of feelings in this vein.
Powell is also troubled by the symbolism of dressing like the suffragettes, “No one is questioning the vast importance of the work that those women did but the fact that some of the leaders of the movement were virulent racists is, at least for me, one of the first things to spring to mind when I think of that movement,” she says.
This is not to say that all women of color are abstaining from election outfits: Weezie, an Alabama woman and Mvskoke Native, is planning to go to the polls in full regalia with her grandmother; Kristine Wylls, whose Twitter bio identifies her as “brownish” (she’s Cherokee), is hand-coloring a Make America Native shirt to wear, even though she feels that in her “small, conservative town,” that may be a “death wish.” The reasons to wear and not wear, to celebrate and not celebrate, to vote joyfully or solemnly, whole-heartedly or with reservations, are as numerous and diverse as the women who hold them.
It’s easy to dismiss caring about clothing as a shallow, materialist, capitalist enterprise—and sure, fine, to an extent, it is. But it can also be a remarkably tender expression of resistance, a reminder that caring for and celebrating our own bodies and freedoms comes in myriad forms, and can be as utilitarian as pulling a polling lever and as ornate and baroque, as useless and beautiful, as painting our nails and our mouths.
Clothes are commercial objects, but as soon as they enter our wardrobes they start to get imbued with personal meaning, and when we put them on our bodies we imagine the ways they’ll mediate between us and the world, translating what’s going on inside of our heads and hearts into something publicly legible. We plan outfits for so many milestones, personal and professional—is it really so strange to think that we want to be intentional and deliberate about how we show up to the political ones, too?