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Opinion | How Kyrsten Sinema Uses Clothing to Signal Her Social Class

We use “middle-class” interchangeably with other powerful nationalist signifiers like “citizen,” “voter” and “American.” And, though my progressive comrades may balk at this comparison, if you compare Sinema to some of Congress’s best-known female politicians, her style is easily the most accessible to her constituents. I know enough about fashion, and how much it costs, to know that few American women can afford to dress like, for instance, the preternaturally turned-out Nancy Pelosi. In fact, part of what makes Sinema’s style performance so uncomfortable for many of us is how middle-class it is: She doesn’t seem to be trying to do better. But that does not mean her style story lacks aspiration.

Mears said that Sinema’s presentation reads like “someone who’s got a catalog budget but is trying to imagine what that high-end editorial looks like, someone who aspires to be cool and edgy.” One dimension of class in Sinema’s sartorial performance is that it is basic but aspirational, not in power, but in coolness. Mears writes extensively about the world of high fashion and how men and women negotiate power.

Mears’s background as a model gives her firsthand knowledge of how class is coded, not just in the clothes we wear but also in the bodies that wear the clothes. In elite nightclubs and social events where the beautiful people gather, women’s beauty is a commodity charged as the price of entry. “The normative body would be a white man,” said Mears, and in a world where white men are the default body, all other aspects of power — from race and gender to class and sexuality — have to negotiate with them for access to powerful places. In such places, being a beautiful woman is a condition of admittance.

The Beltway, with its culture of power and politics, is also a “masculinist place,” as Mears described it. One of the reasons that Sinema’s style stands out is that backdrop. There are a narrow number of roles written for women, just like in society more broadly. One can be an ingénue, a power broker, an elite or an outsider.

Each role comes with a performance that shapes the political message and, as Mears put it, “chooses her audience.” Sinema stands out for trying to combine different aspects of multiple roles for female politicians. The tightfitting clothes whisper ingénue, innocent of the rules. The bright colors and wigs and accessories scream outsider, someone who knows the rules and ignores them. The bold patterns, in any other silhouette from the one she favors, could signal power broker or elite. But altogether, they communicate someone who may be aware of the roles that female politicians are boxed into but does not play into any of them all of the time.

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