Key Style Alert: Pantsuits are so hot right now.
There have been a lot of trends during this presidential race (“Make America [Insert Thing Here]” hats, anyone?), but in these final days of the election, feminist fashions ruled. There were pantsuit flash mobs, white outfits to signify the suffragette movement, and a sea of “The Future Is Female,” “Nasty Woman,” and “Bad Hombre” shirts. It was a huge shift for politics, and—unlike previous election memes—it happened IRL.
The 2012 election had its share of viral sensations. The most memorable were from Mitt Romney blunders: There was the “47 percent” video from Mother Jones, jokes about “binders full of women,” memes of Sesame Street’s Big Bird asking to be saved from his proposed PBS defunding. But online rallying took on a new form this year—and not just from political bots and Twitter trolls. Women have owned the online space, from tweeting about their experiences with sexual assault to posting photos of their “grab them by the pussy” Halloween costumes. And this has translated to real-world fashion, especially on this election day.
Sure, Trump supporters have become most visible for their fire-engine red hats, often worn by the kind of folks who tend to wear baseball caps straight forward (read: white dudes). But for Clinton’s camp, fashion seems to have originated largely with her supporters themselves. And their choices, as it tends to be with women’s clothing and anything to do with women’s bodies, have been far more political.
Otherwild’s “The Future Is Female” shirts, which originated in New York’s first women’s bookstore in the 1970s, have popped up across America thanks, in part, to attention from model/actress Cara Delevingne late last year, as well as the Clinton campaign. Though the shirt has been around for decades, it took a popular celebrity to bring it to the attention of those who love its Instagram-ready appeal. And various “nasty woman” T-shirts were available for sale online as soon as the phrase left Trump’s mouth during the third debate, thanks to speedy design tools and web-enabled vendors.
And, of course, there is the pantsuit.
Pantsuit Nation, a secret group on Facebook, is the most obvious example. The page is full of thousands of positive messages among Clinton supporters—many of whom, yes, are wearing pantsuits. There are also photos of children donning matching outfits with pearls and Clinton buttons, voters in suffragette white (and those who wore brown or black pantsuits to signify that women’s suffrage often ran counter to the right for black people to vote), and grandmas casting their ballots from hospital beds.
The pantsuit has not traditionally been considered a flattering outfit. But it’s professional, it’s tailored to individual style, and, most importantly, it levels the clothing field with men. The pantsuit also has a long history of struggle. It was first introduced to the world in the 1920s, at a time when women still didn’t have the right to wear what they pleased. Early celebrity adopters Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn notably fought stereotypes that they were either too sensual to hide their bodies under men’s clothes or that the clothes were a symptom of being too masculine as individuals. Even now, the pantsuit is a politically charged choice. It’s still notable when celebrities like Janelle Monáe choose to regularly wear matching slacks and suits instead of dresses.
Since 2000, Clinton has made the pantsuit her mainstay. And you probably know this not from watching her public appearances, but from the fact that critics are obsessed with picking apart her look, constantly commenting on how much she’s smiling or whether or not she’s wearing glasses. (To be fair, the focus on Trump’s hair is another symptom of the patriarchy and our obsession with manhood and virility.) But by 2012, Clinton made it clear that, frankly, she didn’t give a damn. “If I wanna wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses,” she famously said. “If I, you know, wanna pull my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back.”
And so she has owned the pantsuit, donning colors from across the rainbow, matching and contrasting undershirts, and adding only a few spare accessories. It’s an outfit that always looks appropriate and never looks like it’s trying too hard. Her followers have taken note.
Today, Clinton supporters have raided closets and thrift stores to don their suits and manifest the meme. It’s a gratifying cycle: You see that others are wearing this thing, you wear it yourself, you see “your people” doing the same thing in the real world, you go back to your Facebook or Instagram to post a pic of yourself in the thing, and then your friends (or maybe even all of Pantsuit Nation) likes your photo.
The act of donning a pantsuit (or a white shirt or whatever else) is a materialization of the online in real life, of turning symbolism into action. Female supporters are taking ownership of a candidate in a way they have never been able to before when the presidential candidate pool was entirely male—and they’ve done it simply by wearing clothes. When else have women been able to look up on the subway or sidewalk, see another woman in a pantsuit, and be able to smile at them knowing that they have something in common?
It’s also a reclamation on a massive scale in an election where sexual assault and women’s looks have been more widely discussed than ever before. It’s a way for us to make our bodies, endlessly politicized and policed, work to get what we want and to build a community. Yes, this is also all a part of consumer feminism. But it’s different than Dove exploiting diverse female bodies to sell soap or Kotex hiring athletes for maxi-pad commercials. It’s a very real way to connect with people around the world—those also fighting for gender equality and who voted for the same candidate. And who just happen to know how to rock a pantsuit.