Idealist. Infuriator. Influencer: the year of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
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In the light of the recent US election result and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s subsequent comments about the failures of the Democratic party’s digital strategy for the election, we revisit this feature originally published in November 2019.
On June 29 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of her shoes on Twitter, just as many other young women her age do. She’d just defeated 10-term incumbent Rep Joe Crowley in a primary race to serve as the Democrat Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. The shoes? Grubby zip-up plimsolls, with worn-through soles, from & Other Stories, a decidedly millennial brand beloved by young women keen to purchase vintage-look dresses and shower gel in Instagrammable packaging. Ocasio-Cortez photographed the shoes in the recognisable “flatlay” style, a social-media trope whereby items are placed on a smooth service and symmetrically positioned to fit the app’s crop. Bloggers do this routinely to show off the contents of their handbag or what they’re packing for a trip. “Here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez, firing back at critics who argued that her victory had been helped by a low turnout and “demographics”. She went on, in November, to become the youngest woman ever voted into Congress.
The image highlighted Ocasio-Cortez’s shrewd understanding of what makes a good hit for social media (the post was retweeted 60,000 times and favourited by 315,000 people) and the power of clothing to communicate. In the first scene of Knock Down the House, a documentary by Rachel Lears that follows insurgent congressional candidates trying to challenge powerful incumbents, Ocasio-Cortez is shown in a bathroom, pencilling in her eyebrows. “Getting ready, for women, it involves so many decisions about how you’re gonna to present yourself to the world, because there is kind of standard protocol for how a man running for office should dress – you either put on a suit, or you put on a light-coloured shirt, slacks and you roll up the sleeves – those are pretty much your two options. Part of me is, like, trying to brace myself…” she said, surveying her reflection.
The & Other Stories shoes clearly did not fit into those two male dress codes – they were not sharp and formal, or classic and rugged. They were presented as something to identify with – something young, something feminine, something normal. They were the shoes of a worker – neither shiny nor polished. They were shoes of someone on their feet, not behind a desk. They looked like good shoes for waitressing, which Ocasio-Cortez did for a while before running for office. These did not look like powerful shoes, but Ocasio-Cortez asked us to see their power.
Ironically, given that Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign was run around an item of clothing – a baseball cap – it is female politicians who are sparking the most commentary when it comes to the fashions in Washington. This is due, in part, to age-old bias – for decades, female public figures have stoically tolerated media obsession with their wardrobes. Women in office, or running for office, are often reduced to little more than the surface, seen as one and the same as their blazer, their haircut, their face. To many, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits were an extension of who she was, intricately tied to the policies, to the abilities, the leadership. Some have learnt to shrug off the clamouring and have fun. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wore brooches each day to signal her thoughts and policies. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has happily walked interviewers through her collar collection, pointing out her popular “dissent collar”, which has sparked fan merchandise.
Recently, the style commentary has been fuelled by the excitement of new faces in the House – more women, more young people, more people of colour. People who, naturally, stick out among the fusty, ill‑fitting suits and jowly faces, and look vibrant and stylish – like they do their own shopping rather than getting their spouse to do it. They look, for want of a better word, cool. Ocasio-Cortez and others from her “squad” (a group of four freshman congresswomen of colour, the other three being Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) have sought to reclaim the attention around their appearances and wardrobes, using it as a way of reasserting their difference, rather than asking to be viewed in the same way as male peers. In an early campaign video, The Courage to Change, which went viral, Ocasio-Cortez was shown changing her shoes on a train platform, putting on her uniform for the day, as many other working, commuting women do. The message: I’m like you, I work, I take public transport, I “hustle”. She is rich in the authenticity so sought after in today’s politics. She often has a hairband around her wrist – women get it.
To her swearing in, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore hoop earrings and red lipstick. “I saw @AOC wearing gold hoops and red lipstick at her swearing in so I am now going to wear gold hoops and red lipstick everywhere I go,” tweeted Ashley Alese Edwards, the then deputy director of news and politics at Refinery29. It was a play on a classic and much-quoted line from the teen classic Mean Girls (“I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip-flops. So I bought army pants and flip-flops”), but showed that Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she’s so often called online, had cultivated a rare status that sat somewhere between a politician and that loose modern word: “influencer” – someone who inspires the kind of adoration that extends beyond what they say to how they live their life. Ocasio-Cortez retweeted Edwards, explaining that the look was a homage to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-coloured beauty products to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. “She kept her red,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez, adding: “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman.”
Later, Teen Vogue posted a beauty tutorial video on YouTube, titled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Campaign Volunteers Try Her Skincare and Beauty Routine. The Cut had five women try her favourite red lipstick, which she’d revealed to be Stila’s Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso. Rather than shrugging off the seeming irrelevance of it all, Ocasio-Cortez continued the dialogue, using her Instagram stories to talk about the importance of properly removing make-up before bed, and live-posted herself on Instagram applying a press-on manicure on a train: “Today was so nuts I am having a glass of wine and giving myself a press-on manicure (they are not corny anymore!) on the Amtrak at almost 1am,” she wrote. “The trick is to wait a bit, then file them down to your natural/desired shape.” Followers were quick to notice that the set she was using was Impress’s So, So Stellar, which retails for around $8.
“It’s not really aspirational,” says Bridget Read of Ocasio-Cortez’s style and social-media content over Skype. This year, she followed the congresswoman for 36 hours for an American Vogue profile. “With the manicure, she was, like, ‘Watch me putting it on on the train.’ Or ‘Watch me put make-up on in my pretty regular millennial apartment.’ Her whole message has been that she is a regular person – in Congress.” This is refreshing, says Read. “It’s almost like politicians hadn’t figured out that this would work for our age – for millennials who had been so alienated by the political process. Nobody had figured out how to appeal to us, and she’s one of us, so it feels very natural for her to be doing things that would feel very unprofessional in a different era, but now just seem really smart. Her use of social media is so innate, because of how old she is.”
In a moment with which many millennials identified, Ocasio-Cortez commented on struggling financially with moving from New York to Washington before her Congress paychecks started. Many tweeted about the familiar feeling of living month to month. She also spoke about relying on clothing rental service Rent the Runway, which allows users to borrow designer goods, including sharp tailoring. A friend turned her onto it, she told Vogue. To Elle, she said, “I am a thrift-shopping queen. I love spending time in thrift shops in New York City. It’s a really good way to curate your own style instead of just buying new clothes all the time.” Her statements speak to a zeitgeisty “girl boss” mentality that’s vibrant on social media – here, users talk of grafting, overcoming barriers and faking it until you make it. Ocasio-Cortez’s style and shopping tips read like those of a savvy, economical friend, or a useful blogger, but have a pointed aim – she is aware of the power of people identifying with her look, having repeated numerous times, in speeches and interviews, the importance to young people and to women and to people of colour of seeing politicians who resemble themselves. She sees it would be ill-advised to shrug off hairstyles or make-up routines or jewellery – things that can hold great cultural significance to certain groups – as inane. “She can do so much just by being there in Congress – a young Latina woman who “should not be there” based on what the establishment would want,” adds Read.
Such style and gumption have, of course, riled. A right‑wing commentator, Eddie Scarry, tried to catch Ocasio-Cortez out on her comments about being on a budget. Tweeting a hazy photo of Ocasio-Cortez from the back, he wrote: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” The comment became the day’s popular meme, repeated alongside pictures of Rihanna at the Met Gala, Anne Hathaway in Chanel in The Devil Wears Prada, and even the majestic Mandarin duck that had arrived in New York and captivated residents that month.
The backlash began before Ocasio-Cortez even took up her seat. In September 2018, she posed for Interview magazine in a green suit by Uruguay-born, New York-based designer Gabriela Hearst, and black Manolo Blahnik stilettos. The outfit’s total cost was around $3,500 dollars. Accusations of hypocrisy abounded. Fox & Friends, the Fox News breakfast show, inevitably went in heavy, mocking her “expensive taste for a socialist”. “I want a pair of $600 shoes,” said guest host Katie Pavlich. “I think she should redistribute.” Responding on Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez argued that her critics didn’t “understand the concept of magazine shoots… You don’t get to keep the clothes, duh.” Adding: “Get used to me slaying lewks because I am an excellent thrift shopper.”
“It was such a good comeback,” says Hearst over the phone. “Women in politics are in an impossible position when it comes to style: if they seem to care, they are dismissed as vain; if they don’t care, they are insulted for being frumpy. Plus,” she laughs, “no one would ever ask a male politician how much his suit cost, or complain if it was expensive.” Hearst was thrilled to lend the suit to Ocasio-Cortez. “In the US, women and Latin people are under attack. In her, I see myself being represented…We like to dress people who use their platform not only for themselves, but to serve others – lawyers, public figures, bio-engineers, dynamic women in the workforce.” Hearst sees her role as being similar: she is a “seamstress”, she says, “providing a service to these extremely intelligent, dynamic women who need to be well-dressed – it’s not about power-dressing, because they already have the power; it’s more that they need to not be thinking about it. Clothes are a frame – they frame the person. But it’s not about the clothes, it’s about the person.” She pauses. “I always say that I wouldn’t be a designer if I didn’t understand water retention. If you’re on your feet a lot through the day, your legs are going to swell up by night time – that affects how we cut our trousers.”
Hearst’s brand has risen largely in union with the increased visibility of women like Ocasio-Cortez. After the 2016 election, in order to lift up the energy of her studio, Hearst filled her mood board with pictures of new female senators, such as Kamala Harris (now a presidential candidate) and Tammy Duckworth. It’s those women she wants to dress. She has noticed, in the past few years, that women in these public roles seem to be feeling more comfortable when it comes to navigating their appearance and style, refusing a pressure to blend in with unremarkable tailoring or masculine dress. They are, she says, “taking ownership of their look – the idea that you can feel attractive and be a very smart woman. Before, you could not be both; now, you can be.”
Impenetrability, often such a caveat of professionalism, is now no longer effective – it reads as chilly, stuffy and snobbish. Ocasio-Cortez’s success has come, in part, from the ability to enter the world of politics, while still communicating, seemingly nonchalantly, along millennial lines. This involves a certain degree of identity performance and the willingness to capitalise on one’s own image or “personal brand” and, most importantly, share. With the beauty tutorial and the press-on nails, Ocasio-Cortez partakes in social media rituals that others can identify with. It speaks to a generation that is passionate about decategorisation and the ability to take on the multiple roles Hearst talks about. An icon of today is one who defies expectations – a politician “slaying lewks” feels like just that. It has the same zing as when Phoebe Waller-Bridge declares, in Fleabag, that hair is everything. Or when Michelle Obama wears thigh-high glittery Balenciaga boots. Or when Jess Phillips does or says just about anything. “Strong relate,” replies the internet, dutifully.
The tactic of an older generation of women to simply ignore the media fuss around image is impractical and inconceivable to someone of a generation weaned on serving themselves up weekly, daily, hourly, for public consumption or critique. The whole act of social media is transactional in this way: you reveal yourself via selfies, opinions, visual “references”, and others rate you. While some sigh at the thought of a picture of their outfit being splashed across the front page, alongside some offensive, pithy headline, AOC accepts that it inevitably will happen, and that she herself can, when it suits, make use of it – the outfit and the flat picture, the caption, the retweets and, crucially, the message, are a neat package.