Last week, I taught four different topics to four different sets of students. It was exhausting, it was a particularly contemplative week for me. It straddled Yom Kippur, followed closely on the heels of the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and marked the week that the winds brought extreme heat and smoke back to the East Bay, essentially trapping my family at home.
It was a tough week, and I was looking for some meaning.
It was no surprise that I found a clue in the main source of my exhaustion. A common thread presented itself as I talked about organizational culture to executive MBAs, presented a framework of leadership styles to a group of Saudi women in academic leadership positions, debriefed a negotiation with evening and online MBA students, and walked through the basics of corporate governance to an impressive group of women hoping to break into the ranks of corporate directors. One word kept jumping from my lips as if I couldn’t hold it back.
I shouldn’t have been shocked: I tell my students to be intentional all the time. We create intentional cultural norms to support strategy implementation. We must intentionally interact with different employees in different situations. We over-prepare for negotiations in order to know our counterpart so we can pull together an offer that entices them with intention. We should choose to join boards whose values comport with ours, saying yes with intention rather than just because we are asked.
And haven’t I been saying, in blog posts over the past few months, that we should be dressing with intention? If clothing is the story we tell about ourselves, we need to dress thoughtfully, carefully, making sure we are giving off the right impression.
It is the lack of intention that makes Ivanka and Melania’s clothing look so out of place, as I have noted. There is no message there, and to the extent that we try to read a message into their clothing, we are often left confused and disappointed. (Ok, Melania sometimes chooses her clothing with intention, but it never ends well.)
Which brings me back to RBG. Of the many lessons she taught us — that our status under the law should not be determined by our individual differences; that women deserve a seat at the table and should be unabashed about taking it; that one must speak one’s mind with conviction; that we can love people with whom we vehemently disagree, and that disagreement can make us smarter, sharper, better; that choosing the right life partner can make all the difference — the one each of us can most readily implement is using one’s clothing to send an intentional message.
This is not new news to anybody who has admired Justice Ginsburg over the years. She was famous for her jabots, the decorative collars she wore with her judicial robes. More than mere decoration, however, these accessories telegraphed very intentional messages.
On one level, the messages were very literal. The bold one, made of golden lace, is for majority opinions. The black, spiky one lets us know she dissents from the prevailing opinion.
But there is a deeper meaning, as well. In 2019, she debuted a new piece in the Court’s opening session, one commissioned for her to her by a Jewish magazine that incorporated the word tzedek, Hebrew for justice. The phrase “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — or “justice, justice shall you pursue” — from Deuteronomy 16:20, inspired Justice Ginsburg and featured prominently in art hung in her chambers.
In addition to telegraphing her opinion, RBG’s jabots also emphasized her femininity. As she told The Washington Post in 2009, Ginsburg and her predecessor on the bench, Sandra Day O’Connor, decided to wear frills to compensate for the decidedly masculine nature of judicial robes.
You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie. . . So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman. So I have many, many collars.
(This is a problem well known to academics, as well, whose regalia is clearly designed with men — and only men — in mind. Our heavy robes and cowls are made to be secured in place with a little loop meant to hook around a man’s shirt button, which seldom features on the clothing women wear to festive celebrations like graduations. On the occasions I have forgotten to bring along safety pins, I have spent entire graduations straining against the heavy fabric that feels purpose-built to choke the life out of female academics. Or at least to keep us from speaking up.)
The New York Times’s Vanessa Friedman summed up RBG’s collars best:
[They] served as both semiology and semaphore: They signaled her positions before she even opened her mouth, and they represented her unique role as the second woman on the country’s highest court.
RBG was perhaps the latest, but not the only woman in a position of authority to practice sartorial diplomacy with such intention. Secretary of State Madeline Albright is famous for her collection of brooches, worn strategically as befits the occasion and the message she wants to convey. I devoured her beautiful book, Read My Pins, one lazy Saturday morning, carefully inspecting each item and the meaning she ascribed to it.
Like RBG, Albright demonstrates that clothing is about more than fashion and that it can be a form of self-expression far beyond what we usually consider. Choosing a dress over a suit may say “I don’t care about your corporate guidelines, I’ll wear what makes me happy,” certainly. But that is a far cry from Albright’s choice to wear a pin shaped like an insect to let the Russians know she had found the bugs they planted in the State Department.
Ginsburg and Albright are not alone, of course. Protest clothing has a long history (see this glorious recent review). The power of protest fashion was exploited by the pussyhat movement so prominent at the 2017 Women’s March. Held the day after Trump’s inauguration, the march and its emblem supported women’s rights and protested Trump’s vulgar description of his treatment of women. The hats connote feminine identity along with agency, use a term often used to demean to instead claim power, and let a serial sex abuser know that his behavior is abhorrent and intolerable. (Note that this particular item of protest clothing is not without controversy among feminists.)
Earlier, the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. coopted the color white. The color helped them stand out, identify themselves clearly, and highlight the role of women in society while telegraphing feminine moral purity and making it clear that they were not monstrous, hellraising devils (see this terrific treatment by historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox). No wonder the trend has been revived by U.S. Congresswomen, both to celebrate women receiving the right to vote in 1920 and to protest the Trump administration’s lack of regard for women and their bodily autonomy.
The protest clothing that most moves me was worn by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Images of their black power salute on the medal podium consistently reduce me to tears. My emotions stem both from pride in the protesters, their amazing accomplishments, and their courage in making their political values clear (notably in what is supposed to be an apolitical forum) and from anger at the systemic racism that motivated their act. After seeing Smith speak at a 2017 event at his alma mater, San Jose State University, his humility and kindness added new dimension to my appreciation for his act.
Most Americans know the image well: Smith and Carlos, two black men, having won gold and bronze medals for their record-setting performance in the 200-meter dash, bow their heads and raise their gloved fists as their national anthem plays, while the white, Australian silver medalist stands in front of them. (That man, Peter Norman, was the one who suggested they split the one pair of gloves they brought, so each could raise a solitary fist to echo the well-known image of the black power movement.)
I am most familiar with a version of this image cropped to cut off their legs (as seen here). It feels complete in itself, but it only tells half the story.
The full image (as seen here) shows that Smith and Carlos are barefoot, in black socks, carrying one running shoe each. Smith holds a glass-topped wooden box, revealing an olive branch. Carlos’s jacket is open, in contravention of Olympic rules, a string of beads hanging between his flapping lapels, the USA of his t-shirt obscured. All three men wear buttons naming the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Every aspect of this display was chosen with intention. Carlos’s swinging beads represented the lynching of countless black Americans; he covered up the USA on his t-shirt to reflect his shame at the lack of progress towards equal treatment under the law. In an interview with Smithsonian magazine to mark the inclusion of his clothing as artifacts in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, Smith remembered:
The socks represented poverty, black people’s poverty from slavery to where Tommie Smith and Carlos were. … The bowed head represented prayer. The Christian experience of us on the victory stand wasn’t there by mistake. We were there because we were appointed in that moment by God to do something representing freedom to man. . . . The fist represented power … a need to move forward proactively. Not necessarily the black pride of an illegitimate type of fight with the background of militancy. Militancy had nothing to do with that victory stand.
Every item had a message. Every message was an expression of intent.
That is dressing with intention.
How often do you and I dress with as much care? How often do we use our clothing not just as an expression of individuality (and I would argue that many of us do not do so often enough), but as an expression of our beliefs? Of our values? Of our intent?
Sure, we can wear peace sign earrings or a dress with a periodic table pattern or a protest button or a message t-shirt, but we can also do more.
So let’s take a lesson from RBG, from Albright, from Smith and Carlos. Think carefully about what message you want to project and how to get that across clearly. I don’t have a formula, but I am confident that each of us is up to the task.