If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of the “new” Democratic party, why is she taking fashion cues from the old guard?
This week, after a long day touring construction sites and politicking, shared an Instagram snap of her bare feet standing on a bag of veggies from the freezer. “If you want to know what the life of a congresswoman is like,” she wrote, “I am currently stepping on bags of frozen broccoli in my kitchen, because my feet just got wild cramps from walking around in heels for 12 hours.”
It was the kind of social media content the 29-year-old Democrat (love or hate her) is known for: blunt, irreverent, relatable. After all, nearly every woman has endured the exquisite pain of trying to walk, to stand, to live in a pair of too-tall shoes.
But when asked if she was required to don such torture devices, Ocasio-Cortez got a bit defensive. “I don’t have to wear heels, I was just trying to wear cute ankle boots and feel my jush today, okay?!” she wrote — a standard millennial feminist response. She then added, in parentheses, “But I also have yet to see the speaker wear flats.”
Wait, the speaker? A k a Nancy Pelosi? A k a the congresswoman who AOC and her ilk deemed too old-guard and not-progressive-enough to lead the House before, begrudgingly electing her anyway? Why is Ocasio-Cortez — the widely heralded face of the New Democratic Party TM — taking footwear cues from a legacy politico?
Now, there are many reasons an ostensibly progressive young woman like AOC would choose to wear high heels. Sometimes that extra height helps put her eye-to-eye with her male colleagues (or opponents), making her seem more serious or intimidating. Sometimes the extra few inches can lift her confidence. Sometimes it’s purely an aesthetic choice. (There is a uniquely strange beauty to a sharp stiletto that, unfortunately, you just can’t find in a loafer or ballet flat.)
But often it has to do with conforming: many more-conservative workplaces require, or at least expect, their female employees to don heels. In her new book, “High Heel” — a meditation on the fraught feminist history of the “talon” — author Summer Brennan writes about falling down the stairs while wearing heels during her job at the United Nations, and then being asked why she was dressed down on the days she wore flats.
Congress is similarly stuffy, with antiquated sartorial rules against, for example, baring one’s shoulders inside the chamber. Closed-toe formal shoes are mandatory, and though a heel isn’t, it’s pretty much expected, as integral to a woman’s corporate uniform as a tie is to a man’s — though a tie doesn’t give its wearer scrapes and bruises, as Brennan points out in her book.
But, in the year 2019 — when sales of heels are down by 12 percent and we’re all much more casual and woke and not as tied to gender expectations — how is that still the case?
Which brings us back to AOC. Why does this unabashed outsider, who has no problem challenging her peers (and elders) in Congress, feel the need to conform to this one thing? I understand that as a young, idealistic lefty whose last job before holding office was at a bar, she might want her wardrobe to cause as little fuss or distraction as possible, so as not to add to charges that she’s inexperienced and frivolous and unqualified.
But no matter what she wears — and she rarely deviates from a standard Ann Taylor-like black suit and workmanlike pumps, with the exception of the stunning white cape she wore for the president’s State of the Union speech — she’s going to be criticized anyway. So why doesn’t she stand up to her haters in a pair of sturdy Dansko clogs? Or snazzy brogues? Or lace-up boots? Or even a funky platform? Anything but a debilitating high heel?
Yes, legislation and actions matter more than wardrobe, but politicians have long used clothes as symbols for the kind of leader they wanted to be seen as — from George W. Bush’s cowboy boots and rustic button-downs, to Obama’s dad jeans (which made the eloquent prez seem more down-to-earth), to even Trump’s slovenly taped-down tie. AOC is now the face of a more inclusive, more feminist, more progressive Democratic Party. What better (or frankly easier) way to symbolize that than by chucking out the old footwear? Because if she waits for Nancy Pelosi — with her perfect coif and slick designer duds and sharp stilettos — to do so, well, it ain’t ever gonna happen.
By Raquel Laneri