Snatched + Ready: The fierce style of black female politicians

Because black women aren’t worried about a dress code

In news that should surprise no one, President Donald Trump has strong opinions about how his female staffers should dress. According to a story in, Trump’s rules of professional attire require them to “dress like women,” and some women have “felt pressure to wear dresses to impress Trump.” Cue the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman, which featured pictures of surgeons, soldiers, scientists and firefighters wearing their professional uniforms with pride.

Perhaps Trump should consider aligning himself with a few black female politicians and policy experts — if they’ll have him. But let’s be clear: Black women got the memo about how to dress appropriately for work a long, long time ago. Enslaved women who were nannies to white children on Southern plantations were given better clothing than their field-working family members. Could a black woman in the post-Jim Crow era have gotten a job as a domestic worker or school teacher if she wasn’t neat, clean, pressed-and-curled or respectably attired in her Sunday best? Unlikely.

When African-American women began running for elected office in large numbers, they knew they would have to look the part. Working alongside their white colleagues in state capitols, the United Nations or on the floor of the U.S. Senate and Congress meant dressing respectably in order to be taken seriously. It also made good political sense: Black folks saw themselves in well-dressed, elegantly groomed leaders, and white folks felt comfortable with their conservatively attired peers.

Gone were the days when uber-fly black politicians got the side-eye. “We, the People” now came with a Macy’s charge card and tickets to the Ebony Fashion Fair catwalk show. The late ’80s and ’90s saw a wave of fashionable city mayors and congresswomen who embraced bright colors, wild patterns, over-the-top jewelry and hats, showy shoes. Some even wore ultrafeminine dresses and smart skirt suits in order to seem in touch with their constituents.

Grassroots Heroine Ella Baker: One of America’s most brilliant behind-the-scenes social justice workers, Ella Baker’s impassioned speeches inspired the volunteers working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the organizations she co-founded. Baker always dressed in ladylike skirts, dresses and hats when she trained Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee volunteers.
Spirit of the South, Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer wore a floral-print cotton dress, jewel earrings, carried a white pocketbook and had carefully pressed hair to testify before the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee in 1964. Her simple outfit was similar to clothing worn by women across the American South during counter sit-ins and protest marches and rallies.
Political Pioneer Shirley Chisholm: The gold standard of feminine political dressing, Shirley Chisholm was partial to custom-made boxy skirt suits and dresses with wild, colorful patterns, cat-eye glasses and her signature bouffant wig.
Woman of the House, Barbara Jordan: Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) was not here to be trifled with. The Texas-born lawyer had a booming voice, immaculate diction and gravitas galore. Jordan was drawn to the kinds of double-knit polyester pantsuits that were popular with working women of the day.
Rebel, Rebel, Angela Davis: Former black nationalist and scholar Angela Davis has remained as famous for her sky-high afro as for her activism. Davis told an audience in 1994 that she hates being “remembered as a hairdo. It’s humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to the politics of fashion.”
The Original Hat Lady Dorothy Height: While her political peers were content to wear safe clothes, Dorothy Height always played the grande dame card. The longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women became synonymous with her fancy headwear, and is pictured wearing a purple topper on her new Forever U.S. Postal Service stamp.
Top of the Crop, Rep. Alma Adams (D-North Carolina): Alma Adams’ hat game is so strong that she even made her legendary personal collection (more than 1,200 strong and counting) a part of her recent congressional campaign message. “When I’m fighting against Donald Trump and those Republicans? Huh. There’s a hat for that, too.” Where do we sign up?
One Snazzy Sister, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida): Yes, black women have a special love for church lady hats, which symbolize being properly dressed for important public events. But Wilson is out here auditioning for an off-Broadway revival of Frederica and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Hats, which isn’t a real thing, but should be.
Perfectly Prepared Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.), delegate to the U.S. Congress: She has always come correct. Her political advocacy and authentic representation — as well as for full congressional voting rights for the District of Columbia — is always as tight as her short natural hairdo.
A Light on the Delta, Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois): As the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Carol Moseley Braun embodied the uplifting fashion legacy of black sororities and social clubs such as The Links and The Girl Friends (Moseley Braun is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.). Her classic wardrobe of skirt suits, tasteful boardroom makeup and jewelry and elegant hairstyles meant straight business.
Military-Grade Style, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: Condoleezza Rice had a major fashion moment in 2005 when she paired sleek black high-heeled-to-the-knee boots with a long-fitted, military-style coat during a visit to an army air base in Germany. The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan described Rice as “prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame Matrix jump kick if necessary.”
The Risk-Taker, former first lady Michelle Obama: While she wasn’t elected or appointed to her position, Michelle Obama became one of the most famous black women in the world shortly after moving into the White House. The Chicago-born Harvard Law School graduate wore her clothes with confidence and flair, which drew praise and unflattering comparisons from various media factions.
Running This Town, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: Vanity Fair named former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to its 2014 list of best-dressed mayors in the world, citing her “tasteful but feminine dress for a corporate party.” Rawlings-Blake also earned kudos from the fashion cognoscenti for wearing “well-tailored jackets and a hairdo that’s far from dowdy.”
Diamond in the Raw, Compton, California, Mayor Aja Brown: When Aja Brown was elected as the mayor of Compton, California, in 2013, Elle described her as looking less like a “city bureaucrat” and more like “a movie star playing one, on a high-gloss TV show. Her makeup and hair are always impeccably done. Her daily uniform consists of an impressive range of smart, shapely skirt suits in vivid colors — fuchsia pink, emerald-green, royal blue — and heels.”
West Wing Maven Valerie Jarrett: Former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser for eight years, Valerie Jarrett brought a bit of much-needed fashion moxie to her wonkish role. Her colorful palette of elegant suits and handbags, stylish, low-heeled pumps and luxurious shawls and scarves helped her daytime looks and evening wear stand out in a sea of boring navy suits.
The Intern Also Rises, Deesha Dyer: The White House social secretary of the Obama administration brought her personal style to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. every day. The Philadelphia-born hip-hop fan will be remembered for her discretion in a busy, difficult job, and for the seemingly never-ending closet of figure-flattering dresses that hugged her petite, curvy frame.
Fighting Ready, Omarosa Manigault: It’s too soon to tell whether President Donald Trump’s new communications director for the Office of Public Liaison will tone down her “let it all hang out” red carpet persona in favor of more conservative attire. Speaking of personas, the abrasive, combative Omarosa we got to know on The Apprentice is apparently alive and well. According to The Washington Post, Manigault recently “got into a heated argument with a White House reporter just steps from the Oval Office,” The reporter, April Ryan, “said Manigault ‘physically intimidated’ her in a manner that could have warranted intervention by Secret Service.”
Pride of the Party, Sen. Kamala Harris: Her star is definitely on the rise. The former attorney general of California is one of two African-Americans currently seated in the U.S. Senate (the other is New Jersey democrat Cory Booker). Her penchant for monochromatic pantsuits and tailored separates does nothing to dull the shine on her high-definition, camera-ready charm and smarts. Harris leads a new crop of elected officials who wear modern, youthful office attire.
The New Guard: Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah): Mia Love, 41, is the first Haitian-American, the first black female Republican, and the first black person from Utah to be elected to Congress. That’s a lot of firsts! The GOP rising star is a tough, independent thinker who famously broke from her party last year and acknowledged that she wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump. Her youthful style and bouncy microbraids mane has gotten the attention of Twitter and Snapchat-obsessed millennials.