Once again: women and sartorial empowerment

In a recent WaPo article, one of my favourite fashion writer Robin Givhan deplores the alleged lack of a sartorial ‘vocabulary’ for expressing the power of women in politics.

The reality is that women don’t need particular garments to make them feel powerful but they still need clothes to help them look the part.The culture hasn’t yet reached the point at which a ruffly, pinafore-style dress with a Peter Pan collar telegraphs power the way that a navy pinstriped suit does. It’s not fair but that’s the reality. Men, at least white men, can wear track pants and hoodies and no one questions their intelligence or whether they are worthy of respect. Bernie Sanders can pound the hustings looking like he slept in his clothes and people equate the wrinkled suit with being an absent-minded professor type rather than just a slovenly mess. Men come draped in an invisible cloak of legitimacy.

While I understand it, I actually have a number of issue with this statement. Firstly, it is based on just the experience of the Paris Fashion show and its emphasis on suits as one of the latest trends in fashion. This seems to me (as a social scientist) a rather small sample from which to draw such sweeping conclusions. After all, Givhan herself has written extensively about the changing fashion choices of women in politics the last few years.

Secondly, the sartorial vocabulary of powerful women has certainly expanded over the last years. To take ‘ruffly pinafore-style’ dresses as the basis of this argument strikes me as a bit misleading. To refer to my all-time favourite example, surely Michelle Obama can be considered to have social and symbolic power even after her tenure as most sartorially savvy FLOTUS ever, and surely she has expanded significantly the vestiary code through which to express, emphasise and project it. Thirdly, I am not sure that men can express their power in track pants and hoodies, unless they do this in the gym. Bernie Sanders does look like a rumpled sociology or philosophy professor from a different era, but this does, I’d argue, make it just that little bit harder to become the President of the USA.


Finally, power is a fiendishly difficult concept to define even for political scientists, and any sweeping statements about it seem to obscure more than they explain. Oh, and then there was that episode with President Obama and the tan suit he wore for a presser…

I was reminded of this discussion again recently when I came across this image of female students at … that are part of the resistance movement against President al-Bashir in Sudan.

Screenshot 2019-03-09 at 20.10.35

There is something fabulously compelling about these women and their sartorial (self-) empowerment. Firstly, they are proudly wearing the thobe, a traditional garment that invokes Sudanese rather than Arab identity, and, as Linda Bishai explains in her fantastic chapter in The International Politics of Fashion, connotates a form of resistance.

In 1996, the government issued an order for all women throughout the country to wear the hijab that covers the hair and neck and sometimes the face (African Centre 2009: 2). Although Sudan has been largely Muslim since the late Middle Ages, Sudanese women have not adopted conservative Arabian dress, preferring to continue with their traditional garb, the sari-like thobe. Thobesare colorful, loosely draped bolts of fabric wrapped over a layer usually consisting of shirt and skirt, and are instantly recognizable as Sudanese (p. 103).

By collectively wearing this garment, the female students empower themselves, mobilising and appropriating symbolic capital that links them to Sudanese traditions and history against the ‘Islamic’ identity of al-Bashir’s regime. This historicising strategy is cast into even sharper contrast by the display of designer sunglasses, ear hangers and lipstick, all demonstrating the exquisite style competence of these women. It suggests that wearing a thobe is a conscious fashion statement and not their quotidian selection of dress.

The choice of colour adds to this strategy. As Linda observes, thobes are usually colourful, as a quick Google search confirms. So to choose a white garment adds a layer of symbolism. In Arab culture (assuming that Sudanese culture in this case is a part of it), white connotates ‘clean’, ‘purity’, ‘virtue’, ‘innocence’, a ‘positive outlook or hope’, and ‘white dove/good news’ (Hasan et al. 2011). There is also a different and darker connotation with ‘shrouds’, ‘pallor of death’ and ‘coffin’, perhaps an unintentional element in the otherwise self-confident display of sartorial competence, which however does add a ‘political’ element – the possibility of violence, even death – beyond the morality of the women’s cause.

The conclusion drawn here is that any statement about the sartorial vocabulary of female empowering needs to account for the socio-political and cultural context within which this does or does not take place. What it also demonstrates is that in Africa (and Asia) fashion, i.e., garments, their style and colours are more significant for women than in the commodified fashion system of the West. This is perhaps not a radical insight, but one that might open up some comparative studies about women’s political agency and the sartorial choices that are part of it. Perhaps I’ll make that topic a part of my new module/course on Worlding IR…


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