Amy Coney Barrett’s Sartorial Politics

The dog whistle of conservative women’s clothing

Judge Amy Coney Barrett being sworn in before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary (Oct. 12, 2020)

I’ve been listening to the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett mostly via NPR so haven’t focused too closely on the visuals. But I’ve seen the images posted to news sites and social media.

I’ve been struck by the similarity in Barrett’s attire at all her public events: solid-colored dresses usually cut below the knee, with fitted bodices and shoulders, tailored waists, and a near-absence of decoration or ornament except for minimal elements in the same fabric as the dress. All with no or unobtrusive jewelry and neutral low heels. And pearls. Lots of pearls. Lisa Simpson-level pearls.

Some social media commentators have gotten into hot water after suggesting Barrett’s wardrobe is unprofessional and inappropriate for any legal professional, who are usually encouraged to wear suits in court. But that debate seems to miss the point entirely.

Barrett’s attire is part of a sophisticated political message to conservative court-watchers about the bargain she’s struck with the powerful men who nominated her and how she’ll rule if she’s elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Merely mentioning a female public official’s clothing risks being called sexist or misogynist. Or reminded how the media reflexively reduces female politicians to their appearances by obsessing over their hair, clothes, or makeup. Or how that reflects very old gender tropes where men are judged by their actions and women by their appearances, as attested by all those Old Master portraits of famous men on horses and anonymous women gazing longingly into toilette mirrors. I get it. I teach a whole class on it.

But clothing — all clothing — is more than simply a matter of personal preference or aesthetics, and thus out of bounds for critical analysis.

We might choose what to buy at Target but we don’t get to choose what Target’s buyers have chosen for us to choose from. Nor do we get to choose the larger societal expectations for appropriate attire or the historical meaning of the style, fit, fabric, or color of our garments. Our personal style in clothing is always constructed in the larger context of the social. In this sense clothing is liminal. It establishes, marks, and exists on the boundary between the public and the private, belonging at once to both and neither realm.

This is especially true of the attire of politicians and other government officials. Although their personal style may play some choice in what they wear, their clothing is part of a carefully crafted public image designed to convey specific political messages.

It’s no accident that Hillary Clinton always wore pantsuits in bright colors. They were part of her political message: “I’m practical and powerful, yet feminine and non-threatening.” She wore them so often they became part of her political ‘brand.’ And, while I would maintain that any observation or criticism of Hillary’s “cankles” is out of bounds, critical analysis of the political function of her wardrobe in her public roles as First Lady, U.S. Senator, and presidential candidate is not.

In those roles, her clothes were part of an intentionally crafted public persona. And it’s not necessarily sexist or misogynist to attempt to interpret the politics of that persona. I just wish we did it more often for men in public life. They wear clothes for political purposes, too. (Why does Donald Trump tie his ties so long? And what message is he attempting to convey?)

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Recent styles worn in public appearances by Amy Coney Barrett.

By extension, it would be naive to think Amy Coney Barrett’s appearance at her recent public events isn’t the product of careful thought and intent. Nothing about her appearance is an accident. Nothing.

I would assume the same dark money groups that have funded the conservative legal movement’s efforts to hijack the federal courts have also paid for Barrett’s wardrobe, all likely selected for her by a professional political stylist informed by feedback from numerous focus groups.

That didn’t begin when Barrett was nominated. For years, Trump telegraphed his next nominee would be a woman. Apart from that, the question of how to ‘thread the sartorial needle’ — feminine but not too sexy; powerful but not too masculine — for professional women has long been the subject of debate. It’s not like there’s no opinion or experience in this area. That conversation started long before Barrett’s name was suggested for a Supreme Court seat.

A quick Google search reveals Barrett doesn’t always dress this way in her professional life. And because her recent attire seems less the expression of any personal sense of style and more a carefully constructed public image, it’s appropriate to seriously consider the intent, meaning, and audience for that image.

What exactly are Amy Coney Barrett’s sartorial politics?

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Yvonne Strahovski as “Serena Joy” in The Handmaid’s Tale

It took me a bit but I finally realized what Barrett’s wardrobe resembles: the costumes for the character Serena Joy in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. In that show, Joy is the most prominent example of an entire class of characters: the “wives” of the “commanders.” They exist in-between: more powerful than the “handmaids” (costumed in blood-red dresses) and the “marthas” (dressed like scullery maids in drab tow-cloth).

Serena Joy’s costumes throughout the show are almost identical in style to those Amy Coney Barrett has worn at her recent public events: closely tailored, solid-colored, mid-length dresses with high necklines and little ornamentation, but all in shades of jade green — the ‘uniform’ of Gilead’s “wives.”

As the show eventually reveals, Serena Joy and her charismatic proselytizing were central to the rise of Gilead, the oppressive theocracy that overthrows the United States government. But after Joy helps Gilead rise to power, she’s displaced by the “commanders” using the very religious philosophy she helped promulgate: since women are subordinate to men, the proper place of a Gilead “wife” is subservient to her “commander.” At one point, organizing a “wives’” resistance to their oppressive conditions costs her a pinky finger as punishment.

Within Gilead’s stratified society, Serena Joy is both powerful and powerless, subordinate to the “commanders” but super-ordinate to the “handmaids” and “marthas.” Though deeply resentful of her exile from Gilead’s leadership — forbidden to even read or write — she nevertheless enjoys certain privileges and luxuries accorded to “wives” of her “commander’s” rank. And her frustration at her artificially imposed limitations is often expressed through heartless cruelty toward the women under her control.

Joy has struck what gender studies scholar Deniz Kandiyoti describes as a “patriarchal bargain.” In exchange for her nominal acceptance and support of a society in which women are subordinate to men, she will enjoy some of the advantages men receive within a patriarchy. And that includes the right to oppress and abuse certain ‘lesser’ women.

And that liminal position as an authoritative yet oppressed woman of faith are encoded in the character’s costumes, which bear a curious resemblance to Amy Coney Barrett’s attire since her nomination event at the White House.

I am not arguing Barrett intentionally imitates Serena Joy’s wardrobe or that she’s even aware of the character or the show. What I’m suggesting is that both Barrett’s wardrobe and Joy’s costumes spring from the same source of conservative Christian belief about the appropriate attire for professional women of faith. (Indeed, the costume designer for The Handmaid’s Tale turned for inspiration to examples from ca. 1900 Amish attire and the Danish cult Tvind.)

That attire is familiar to anyone who’s ever moved in circles with such women. It’s bold but restrained; authoritative without appearing dominant; feminine but not sexual. It’s the wardrobe of smug sanctimony masquerading as religious piety. It’s designed — quite literally — to convey the seemingly contradictory message that the wearer is both powerful and powerless.

It’s the style of the “patriarchal bargain.”

Yes, professional women in public life shouldn’t be reduced to their appearances. And yes, a similar standard should apply to men in similar circumstances.

But Amy Coney Barrett’s clothes in these hearings are clearly a visual dog-whistle to religious conservatives about to realize their generation-long project to seize control of the U.S. Supreme Court. Though superficially pious and restrained they testify to a power derived from men; men hellbent on returning women to second-class citizens, unable to control their own bodies or choose their own healthcare.

Yes, there will be another woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. But Amy Coney Barrett is a woman who doesn’t seem to have a problem throwing other women under the bus. But she’s not driving that bus. She just gets to ride in it.

And she dresses for the part.

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets at @emjaymurphee.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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