Deb Haaland Not Only Makes History, But She Dresses for It, Too.
The first Native American cabinet secretary took a stand for self-expression when she took her oath of office.
Forget about the nation of the pantsuit. One swearing-in at a time, the Washington dress code is evolving.
Deb Haaland became the first Native American to head a cabinet-level department when she took office as Secretary of the Interior on Thursday. And she did so in traditional Indigenous attire, rather than the fruit bowl-colored trouser suit worn by many female politicians recently.
Ms. Haaland wore a dark jacket over a sky blue, rainbow-trimmed ribbon skirt embroidered with imagery of butterflies, stars, and corn, moccasin boots, a turquoise and silver belt and necklace, and dragonfly earrings as she took the oath of office next to Vice President Kamala Harris in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
The former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico stood out among the flags and dark wood, her clothes telegraphing a statement of celebration and self at a ceremonial moment that will be recorded. It was symbolic in a number of ways.
The ribbon skirt is a reminder of "matriarchal strength," according to an Instagram post from Reecreeations, the company that made the skirt for Ms. Haaland's swearing-in: "Wearing it in this day and age is an act of self confidence and reclamation of who we are and that gives us the ability to boldly make bold statements in front of those who often fail to see us." It helps us to be our true self without apology.”
This is yet another departure from the Trump administration's first four years, when the West Wing style was better described as "Fox wardrobe department, D.C. version." Consider a sheath or wrap dress in a primary color, high heels, Breck hair, and plenty of false eyelashes.
It's also a departure from the conventional wisdom about female attire in the halls of power, which prescribed protection in a dark suit with the occasional red jacket for flair. The point was to appear as though you were part of the (male) majority that ruled; to be a company woman and play the part of the organization. That is no longer the case.
During major public events, Ms. Haaland has become known for wearing traditional clothing. She wore a traditional Pueblo dress and jewelry to the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and she did so again in 2019, when she was sworn in as one of the first Native American members of Congress, complete with a century-old red woven belt. She also wore a sunshine yellow ribbon skirt with a burgundy top and boots to President Biden's inauguration in January.
“I just feel like I should serve my people,” she told Emily's List on her first day in Congress. I figured it would make a few people proud out there.”
Indeed, when Ms. Haaland shared a photo of herself at the inauguration on her Instagram feed (she has 124,000 followers), it earned over 45,000 likes and multiple compliments on her outfit. Not to dismiss her successes, as is often charged when a female politician's wardrobe choices are addressed, but to highlight them.
Users cheered after a video of Ms. Haaland getting ready for her swearing-in, which was taken by her daughter, started to circulate online Thursday. One person tweeted, "Ribbon skirt, moccasins, hair down — Deb Haaland inviting all the ancestors to her swearing in ceremony."
The president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill, described it as "my spiritual boost for the day."
Ms. Haaland is not the first or only female politician to use clothing to convey identity in public, but she is part of a new generation of women in Washington who are becoming more and more individual in their choices.
When Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, was sworn in, she wore a traditional Palestinian thobe, and when Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, was elected in 2019, she became the first woman in Congress to wear a hijab.
And, while Vice President Harris has mostly embraced what appears to be a sea of dark trouser suits for her everyday work life, her inauguration fashion choices, which centered on the work of young, independent designers of color, show that she is well aware of the power of carefully calibrated imagery to resonate with audiences — and is more than ready to use that tool with measured precision.
“History is being made once again,” Ms. Harris said after Ms. Haaland was sworn in. It's only right to dress appropriately.