The Visuality of Power Re-Visited

I have written about the in\visibility of power and the role of women before an extended holiday break. Now, after the Golden Globes and the opening of the 116thCongress and a couple of interesting debates on social media, which both produced some interesting ‘visuals’, it seems a good idea to visit that topic one more time.

I found the Golden Globes red carpet last December to be fairly predictable and ‘unpolitical’. The latter, however, is an interesting point in itself. A year ago, most actors wore black in support of the ‘Times Up’ movement. This sartorial choice was supposed to indicate a critical distance from fashion and its alleged ‘objectification’ of women. This year, the same women in their vast majority pretty much returned to conventional fashion choices, leading some fashion commentators to wonder what relevance fashion can have as part of political protest and resistance (As Robin Givhan observed, there were a few smatterings of politics here and there). Certainly, seeing one black dress after another made a powerful statement of women’s solidarity and commitment to the cause of fighting for gender equality and against sexual harassment. Yet at the same time, as I argued in an interview with a LA Times journalist, and in a subsequent blog entry,

given fashion’s inherent logic of constant change, how ‘sustainable’ is this sartorial strategy of muting colours and voices? I think this is what I referred to with the argument that fashion can only incite and act as a catalyst. This is not to be underestimated, but we should not expect fashion to be a reliable and steady ally of social causes. Next show, next runway, next fashion.

Political protest is little more than an element in the constantly ever-changing grammar of high fashion. Last year’s sartorial ideas and interventions are just that: so last year. Of course this does not mean that fashion is irrelevant to politics – there are a few blog entries here that should undermine that argument. And perhaps even the routine Golden Globes 2019 brought a harbinger of things to come and men adapting a more fashion-conscious attitude, perhaps as part of a long overdue re-definition of masculinity.

Writes Givhan,

But the bigger lesson of the Globes is that increasingly the men on the red carpet are just as interesting as the women — if not more so. The men are not suddenly releasing some long-caged inner peacock. Their flamboyant side has been out and strutting for quite some time. It’s that the women’s clothes overall just aren’t quite as exciting anymore. Lady Gaga was a one-off. The balance of fashion is shifting to the fellas.

Well, I am not quite convinced, but I’ll keep an eye on it, above all when it comes to men in politics. It’s not that they don’t use fashion consciously, it’s that we often don’t pay enough attention to them.

Compared to the Golden Globes, the Opening of the 116thU.S. Congress was a spectacle. Above all in the House of Representatives, the visuality of diversity as expressed through fabulous fashion choices was stunning.

This image from the C-SPAN broadcast already gives an idea of the difference that fashion makes in the visualisation and identification of members of the two parties.

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And this is one of my favourite image, as it indicates the significant change in the composition of the Democratic caucus (photo taken off my TV screen in D.C.):

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This is of course Congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-MN). What I like about this is first of all the colour that her headwear added to the staid environment of the House, and, secondly, the proud display of her Muslim belief. That, together with the office envelope, provides a compelling image of the ‘new’ Congress.

There were a number of such inspired sartorial strategies visible that day, expressing the Congresswomen’s identity: native American embroidery and jewellery worn by Congresswomen Debra Haaland (D-NM), a Palestinian thobe by Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), hoop earrings by the new star of the Democratic Party, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a kente cloth by Barbara Lee (D-CA) and last but not least, a bright fuchsia dress with which Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her return to power. The choice of colour made sure that wherever the camera panned, she was brightly visible.

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Lest I forget, over in the other wing of the Capitol, the new senator from Arizona, The Honourable Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) provided some fab sass in her confirmation by Vice-President Pence. It’s worth to watch the video of this; is Pence squirming a bit?

Fashion, I’d argue, matters as part of the visualisation of politics. More precisely, it matters in terms of establishing political identity and agency. To be political and to have agency requires to be visible and to be recognised as such. We know this from protests movements such as the Women’s March, in which ‘pussy hats’ express and constitute a critical female (feminist?) identity and agency, and we know this from the audiences at Trump rallies were MAGA baseball caps do the same. It was fascinating to see that this ‘sartorial construction’ of identity has now reached the traditionally rather staid US Congress and that female senators and representatives (at least if they are Democrats) have gone from being ‘female’ to being ‘female with a story’. What African-American female politicians have done for quite some time has now reached a wider circle of Congresswomen: expressing their individual life experiences and life-worlds with the help of tremendous fashion choices. With that, the identity of the Democratic Party, thanks to a significant increase in the number of female Democratic Congresswomen , is more diverse and assertive than ever. A bit more like America itself, as many commentators have observed.

A final point from a political theory perspective relates to the responses in the media to these performances. William Rasch has recently (re-)introduced the concept of public acclamation as a source of political legitimacy. I think we can read the rather positive feedback to the fashion displays in the Opening Ceremony of the 116th Congress in the traditional and social media as a way of expressing such acclamation, of support for the diversity of identities and agendas. One of the methodological challenges is how to measure and quantify such expressions of support. That’s the topic I shall return to with a paper the first draft of which I presented at a conference in Baltimore last year.


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