Deb Haaland Makes History, and Dresses for It

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Forget pantsuit nation. The Washington dress code is changing, one swearing-in at a time.

On Thursday, Deb Haaland made history when she began her job as Secretary of the Interior, becoming the first Native American member of the cabinet. And she did so not in the recent uniform of many female politirati — the fruit bowl-colored trouser suit — but rather in traditional Indigenous dress.

Standing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to Vice President Kamala Harris to take the oath of office, 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.

Against the flags and dark wood, the former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico stood out, her clothes telegraphing a statement of celebration and of self at a ceremonial moment that will be preserved for the record. It was symbolic in more ways than one.

According to an Instagram post from Reecreeations, that company that made the skirt for Ms. Haaland’s swearing-in, the ribbon skirt is a reminder of “matriarchal power”: “Wearing it in this day and age is an act of self empowerment and reclamation of who we are and that gives us the opportunity to proudly make bold statements in front of others who sometimes refuse to see us. It allows us to be our authentic selves unapologetically.”

This is yet another break from the four years of the Trump administration, when the West Wing aesthetic could best be described as “Fox wardrobe department, the D.C. version.” Think primary-colored sheath or wrap dress, high heels, Breck hair and lots of false eyelashes.

And more broadly, it’s a break from the prevailing wisdom regarding female dress in the corridors of power, which dictated safety in a dark suit — with maybe the occasional red jacket for pop. The point being to look like the (male) majority that ruled; to be a company woman and play the part of the institution. Not any more.

Wearing traditional dress has become something of a signature for Ms. Haaland during big public moments. In 2016, she wore a classic Pueblo dress and jewelry to the Democratic National Convention; in 2019, when she was sworn in as one of the first Native American members of Congress, she did the same, including a red woven belt that was more than a century old. And in January, at President Biden’s inauguration, she also wore a ribbon skirt, one in sunshine yellow, with a burgundy top and boots.

As she told Emily’s List on her first day in Congress: “I just felt like I should represent my people. I thought it would just make some folks proud out there.”

Indeed, when Ms. Haaland posted a photo of herself at the inauguration on her Instagram feed (she has 124,000 followers), it was liked more than 45,000 times, with many comments applauding her attire. Not in order to diminish her achievements, the charge often leveled at commentary on a female politician’s wardrobe choices, but to underscore them.

Similarly, after a video taken by her daughter of Ms. Haaland getting ready for her swearing-in began to circulate online Thursday, users cheered. “Ribbon skirt, moccasins, hair down — Deb Haaland inviting all the ancestors to her swearing in ceremony,” tweeted one user.

Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called it “my spiritual lift for the day.”

Ms. Haaland is not the first or only female politician to use dress to express identity at moments of guaranteed public scrutiny, but she is part of a new generation of women in Washington that is increasingly, and intentionally, individual in their choices.

Rashida Tlaib, the Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, for example, wore a traditional Palestinian thobe to her swearing-in, and Ilhan Omar, the Democratic representative from Minnesota, became the first woman to wear a hijab in Congress when she was elected in 2019.

And though Vice President Harris has largely adopted what seems like a sea of dark trouser suits for her everyday work life, the fashion choices she made during the inauguration, focused on the work of young, independent designers of color, suggest that she is more than aware of the way carefully calibrated imagery can resonate with viewer — and is more than ready to deploy that tool with calculated precision.

As Ms. Harris said after Ms. Haaland was sworn in, “History is being made yet again.” It’s only fitting to dress for it.

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