In July 2017, Democratic women in Congress organized a protest against the enforcement of an “appropriate attire” dress code that was being used to keep reporters in sleeveless outfits out of certain parts of the Capitol building. Two dozen representatives wore shirts and dresses that showed their arms one sunny Friday, beseeching then-Speaker Paul Ryan to modernize the rules.
Kyrsten Sinema, at the time an Arizona congresswoman, didn’t pose for the cutesy photo op the Dems staged on the Capitol steps. Nor did she tweet about her “right to bare arms,” as many of her colleagues did. But few legislators stood to benefit from the loosened rules as much as she did. In her three terms in the House, Sinema became known for a signature style: bold colors, graphic patterns, glittery hoop earrings, and lots of flouncy sleeveless dresses befitting the climate of her home state. With a few notable exceptions (see: eccentric “hipster” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut), women in Congress usually favor more conservative ensembles: solid neutrals, structured sheath dresses, and shapeless trousers. The evident joy Sinema took in dressing outside the Washington norm was a welcome departure from the dutiful businesswear that currently populates the Capitol. It was also appropriate for the image of a post-partisan, aisle-crossing “social butterfly” she strove to present.
Over the past year or so, ever since Sinema launched her successful bid to represent Arizona in the Senate, her look has gotten even more conspicuously glamorous. She’s traded chunky, narrow spectacles for oversize butterfly frames. Her heels have gotten higher, her patterns more eye-catching, her textiles less customary for the Capitol. When Sinema meets with constituents and interest groups from Arizona, she is quite often the flashiest dresser in the room.
The senator got a flurry of attention for her new look in early January, when she was sworn in by Mike Pence in her most flamboyant getup yet: bejeweled white stilettos, a thin-strapped tank top with gigantic pearls around the neckline, a form-fitting skirt printed with a photorealistic pink rose the size of a throw pillow, and a smattering of gems and jeweled brooches. The outfit, and the swagger she displayed while wearing it, landed her a full-page photo on the front cover of the New York Times’ feature on the women of the 116th Congress. When the general public got wind of Sinema’s over-the-top accessories—a gray fur stole for indoors, a glittery polka-dotted tote and retro pink jacket with a fur collar for outdoors—she became the subject of breathless praise, an icon of femininity in a Congress with more female legislators than ever before.
The response to Sinema’s showy new wardrobe has been colored by her bisexuality. Read any thread of tweets extolling her furry cover-ups or kitschy prints, and you’re bound to find references to the year “20biteen”—the natural successor to “20gayteen”—and salutes to Sinema’s recognizably queer style. Her pink coat with jeweled buttons prompted one bisexual Slate colleague to wonder about “the overlap between bisexuality and vintage clothing.” “I know it exists,” she said. “I’ve spent too much money on ModCloth to believe otherwise.”
There is a long history of femme queer women adopting the high-octane girlishness of past eras, particularly in the pin-up mode of the ’40s and ’50s, as a way of reclaiming power in femininity and standing out from the mainstream straight-lady styles of the day. With her old polka-dot dresses, her current turn toward the glam, and her undying commitment to statement glasses, Sinema places herself in the context of generations of bi women seeking queer visibility.
Visibility is a given when you’re wearing the shoes Sinema has sported at work in recent months. In a span of about eight weeks, Sinema was photographed wearing at least four different pairs of boots that would elicit side-eyes in most run-of-the-mill office buildings, to say nothing of the Capitol. One was a knee-high pair with laces and towering heels, and three (three!) were over-the-knee styles, including one taupe suede pair Sinema wore with a minidress to give an address about the government shutdown on the Senate floor.
The response to Sinema’s boots has been predictable: In addition to adulation from queers and fellow flashy dressers, there have been lots of gross sexual comments from men and lots of scoldy exhortations to grow up and act a lady from people who probably enforce a fingertip test on hemlines in their own homes. But you know what? Those people now know the name of an Arizona senator who’s been steadily revising her politics to better serve a rising profile in a pretty conservative state and, depending on how lofty a secular bisexual’s political ambitions can be these days, the entire country. Any legislator can write a nice bill or make a nice speech. It takes a real visionary leader to move the Overton window on Senate-appropriate footwear.