Criticism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s clothes echoes attacks against early female labor activists

As the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has attracted much media attention.

A young outspoken woman who defines herself as “an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker,” Ocasio-Cortez has positioned herself as an outsider who isn’t afraid of speaking truth to power.

While her radical political positions – from abolishing ICE to Medicare for all – is responsible for some of that publicity, her fashion choices have also drawn a lot of scrutiny.

“I’ll tell you something,” Washington Examiner reporter Eddie Scarry tweeted on Nov. 16, “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

It seems that some critics just can’t accept the fact that an unapologetic Democratic socialist like Ocasio-Cortez – who calls for a more equal distribution of wealth and fair shake to workers – can also wear designer clothes.

To a historian like me who writes about fashion and politics, the attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s clothing as a way to criticize her politics is an all-too-familiar line of attack.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the first woman or even the first outsider to receive such treatment.

In particular, I’m reminded of Clara Lemlich, a young radical socialist who used fashion as a form of empowerment while she fought for workers’ rights.

Lemlich – like Ocasio-Cortez – wasn’t afraid to take on big business while wearing fancy clothes.

‘We like new hats’

In 1909, when she was only 23 years old, Lemlich defied the male union leadership whom she saw as too hesitant and out of touch.

In what would come to be known as the “Uprising of the 20,000,” Lemlich led thousands of garment workers – the majority of them young women – to walk out from their workplace and go on a strike.

That 14-week strike between November 1909 and February 1910 was the largest strike by women to date, turning what was thought of as a disorganized workforce into a united, political force.

A 1912 group photograph of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25 Executive Board, which includes Clara Lemlich (top row, third from left). Kheel Center/flickr, CC BY
Strikers demanded better wages, hours and working conditions. But they also called to end the pervasive sexual harassment in the shops, safer workrooms, and for dressing rooms with mirrors and hooks on the walls, so workers could protect their elegant clothes during the workday.

“We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” argued Lemlich, justifying strikers’ demands. And when they went out to the streets, strikers were also wearing those nice clothes of theirs, updated according to the latest trends.