I’m Going Into Politics. What Should I Wear?

For the last few years I’ve been distressed by politics. I got involved with campaigning and activism, but found it to be ineffective. I am a neuromuscular therapist, but with Covid, life changed and I went back to university, studied political science and just got an internship in my State Senate. I want to make an impression and be taken seriously, but like the idea of wearing something special that makes a statement. I have some good basics — a black wool skirt, turtleneck, boots — but wonder if you have any more suggestions? — Susan, Northfield, Minn.

First, congratulations on the internship! That’s very exciting. Also, this week of all weeks, it is good to see someone who is not alienated by politics, but drawn to work within the system for change.

When it comes to that system, however, you are correct in thinking that what you wear is a fraught issue. Hilary Rosen, the vice chair of the political consultancy SKDKnickerbocker, once told me that the general rule with politicians was: Dress for ambiguity so you won’t alienate any potential voters because of your clothes. Most of the time, that means generic, classic suiting that lets you blend into the group so only your words stand out.

(There are, of course, political figures who don’t observe this rule, like Senator Kyrsten Sinema, but she is an exception with purpose.)

For those who work for legislators, this is only more true. You don’t, after all, want to become known for your wacky outfits before you become known for your work, or have what you wear be a talking point. Tammy Haddad, the former MSNBC political director, suggested you approach your quandary the way you would any task, and “begin with a little research.” Go through local news coverage and check out what elected members of the State Senate are wearing. Pick a role model.

Then, she said, play it safe — the black skirt and turtleneck are a good place to start — but “have one item that makes the statement you want.”

Ms. Haddad points to Dr. Deborah Birx’s scarves as a good example. (See also Madeleine Albright’s pins and Nancy Pelosi’s face masks.) “It can be something you carry, like an interesting computer sleeve or small clutch,” she said. You could even “pick up a Shinola hardback notebook (in Minnesota flag blue?) and get it monogrammed.”

Along the same lines, Lyn Paolo, costume designer for both “The West Wing” and “Scandal,” suggests “fun patterned tights” as a good way to inject personality, especially with a basic skirt and boots. (DKNY has some good options; so does Swedish Stockings, which also offers a recycling club for old hose.)

In addition, she said, “I would add one long cardigan option and one jacket option to wear with your dark skirt.” Also, a pair of wide-leg pants. As long as you keep to one color palette, you can mix and match those five items as much as you want without breaking the budget. It’s just good policy.

Your Style Questions, Answered

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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