It’s “Kyrsten Sinema wore what to a major Senate vote?” time again.
We’ve seen the schoolgirl kilt and sweater look the Arizona Democrat wore to curtsey while giving a thumbs down on a vote to increase the minimum wage. We’ve seen the denim vest she wore to preside over the Senate. We’ve seen her wear a dress with what appeared to be an asymmetrical wrap skirt coming to a fairly high slit, paired with white disco boots and a pink wig, on the day in late 2020 when Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on a COVID-19 relief bill. On successive days in 2021, she wore a dress inspired by a "granny square" blanket and a dress or top with a gold lightning bolt that appeared to say “rock and roll.”
On Tuesday, when it came time for the Senate to vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill she played a role in shepherding to bipartisan support, it was a foregone conclusion that Sinema would wear something attention-grabbing. The question was what, and the answer was a top with contrasting shades of pink and an electric blue sequined pencil skirt. The top was a little casual for the Senate (though not as casual as that denim vest). The skirt was more cocktail party than professional event.
Sinema’s response when her attention-grabbing clothes grab attention has previously been to accuse those taking note of it of sexism or of illegitimately talking about her body. However, while “it is easy to treat Sinema’s aesthetics as unimportant,” as Tressie McMillan Cottom noted in The New York Times in 2021, “those aesthetics are part of the way she courts, manipulates and plays with public attention as a political figure. Politicians are part of the cultural and economic elite. Their choices are always about public perception. In that context, a dress is never just a dress. It is always strategy.”
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It’s true that women in politics face challenges their male colleagues do not. There simply isn’t an option for women so accepted that it fades entirely into obscurity in the way a dark suit does for a man. But there are plenty of ways women can dress to avoid public comment except from the lowest of the low. There are even ways to simultaneously avoid public comment and project a brand: Think of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s uniform of black pants, a black top, and a jewel-tone jacket.
Sinema isn’t interested in any of that. The more high-profile the occasion, the more she treats it as an occasion for a statement outfit.
McMillan Cottom argued that Sinema’s “identity as an independent has supplanted her actual political ideology. Her sartorial choices — the denim vest, the bared arms, the chunky costume jewelry, the bright colors — are how she performs that ideology of independence and maverick-ness. Sociologists would call this her ‘presentation of self’: the curated performance of her identity.”
While McMillan Cottom is undoubtedly correct that Sinema is trying—in her clothing as in her Senate votes, to perform being a maverick—I’m also deeply interested in the aesthetics of how that plays out, because as a woman virtually the same age as Sinema, a lot of her wardrobe feels eerily familiar. It’s just that I haven’t seen someone dressing that way since I was in high school and college in the 1990s. Hers is an updated and far more expensive version, to be sure, but the feel—with its juxtaposition of flowery dresses and chunky sneakers, its mixing of casual items with cocktail party items, its borrowing from the silhouettes of the 1940s and 1950s, and its send-ups of iconic actresses of decades past—is very familiar in its specific bid for attention. If she’s performing her independence, she’s doing it in a style vernacular from decades ago.
And here’s the thing: Back then, I thought the girls and young women who dressed like that all the time were trying too hard. Oh, I’m not saying I was immune to the draw of that look. I Manic Panicked my hair from time to time. I had a few choice pieces from vintage stores. But to be in alternagirl drag on the regular? That was worthy of an eye-roll. More than 20 years later, it’s fascinating.
So it’s appropriate in thinking about Sinema’s wardrobe to return to a sociological study from the 1990s. Sarah Thornton, author of Club Cultures, memorably coined the term “subcultural capital” to apply to the development of status among club- and rave-goers she studied, writing in a line that applies all too well to Sinema, “Nothing depletes capital more than the sight of someone trying too hard.”
Sinema is always doing just that. She so desperately wants attention—we’re talking about a sitting senator who Instagrammed herself drinking sangria while wearing a ring that said “fuck off”—but her efforts are too obvious, too labored, too much like costume. A similar wardrobe on someone else might come off as playfulness or camp—a tone that Sinema has achieved on on rare occasions in the past—but these days it all just seems like a ploy.
It’s not just in her wardrobe that Sinema tries too hard, though. It shines through as well in her exaggerated cozying up to Republican senators when she dives in for a hug with Rob Portman or Mitt Romney or beams at James Lankford.
That side of her came out too on Tuesday during the voting on the Respect for Marriage Act. As C-SPAN aired the long, slow voting process, Sinema could be seen for a long stretch in a group of Republican senators. During the press conference about the bill, she appeared notably cozier with Republican Sen. Rob Portman than with Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Over the past two years, both Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin have derived their power from being the key Democratic holdouts on issue after issue, but—although Sinema’s fellow Arizona senator is Mark Kelly, another Democrat, in a state that is trending toward Democrats while Manchin is the big Democratic holdout in a state that’s moved sharply toward Republicans—she is the one who more openly courts speculation about whether she will switch parties. And as she does that, her sartorial displays draw attention to her, the younger, brightly clad woman in the middle of a clump of older men in dark gray suits.
A runoff win by Sen. Raphael Warnock would solidify the Democratic Senate majority and mute the threat of Sinema changing parties. Wins by Democrats in her home state this year—Kelly’s reelection, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ narrow win for governor, the election of Adrian Fontes to succeed Hobbs as secretary of state—highlight that Sinema’s policy stances and aggressive courting of Republicans are not a requirement for her continuing political success, but rather an unnecessary betrayal of her party’s base. It will be interesting to see how she operates in this slightly shifted political environment. Does attention remain her currency of choice? If so, do her strategies for getting it shift? It would be fine, nice even, if she let the intense effort to court attention and shape her public image as a maverick lapse a little, but honestly? If Sinema wanted to wear a vintage tulle cocktail dress and silver combat boots on the floor of the Senate to vote yes on the minimum wage the next time, I’d still roll my eyes, but I wouldn’t complain.
Why did Democrats do so surprisingly well in the midterms? It turns out they ran really good campaigns, as strategist Josh Wolf tells us on this week's episode of The Downballot. That means they defined their opponents aggressively, spent efficiently, and stayed the course despite endless second-guessing in the press. Wolf gives us an inside picture of how exactly these factors played out in the Arizona governor's race, one of the most important Democratic wins of the year. He also shines a light on an unsexy but crucial aspect of every campaign: how to manage a multi-million budget for an enterprise designed to spend down to zero by Election Day.