Shortly after winning the Democratic primary for the 14th Congressional District in New York City this June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of her worn-out shoes. “[H]ere’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles,” she tweeted, above a picture illustrating the aforementioned soles. “Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period.”
This summer, Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke made headlines for sweating through his shirts. The Beto sweat is so iconic it was a popular low-effort Halloween costume. “Supporters young and old wore the signature light-blue button-down that Beto has worn throughout the midterm campaign season,” wrote Opheli Garcia Lawler at the Cut, “making sure to drench the front and back of the collar area.”
Both Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke are progressives who have attracted national attention for becoming viable candidates in races that, in previous years, might not have been contested at all. Ocasio-Cortez was a 28-year-old democratic socialist running against a 10-time incumbent. O’Rourke is running against former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz in Texas, a state that has not had a Democratic senator since 1993.
O’Rourke is a long-shot candidate who has been extremely good at mobilizing voters, as Ocasio-Cortez was in her primary campaign. They know their clothes are telling a story, and they know the story is: They are working very, very hard.
Some folks are saying I won for “demographic” reasons.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) June 29, 2018
1st of all, that’s false. We won w/voters of all kinds.
2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.
Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period. pic.twitter.com/RbpQMYTiWY
There is, of course, a long and robust tradition of politicians — of all political stripes — using fashion to signal the hard work of enacting political change. Consider, for example, the classic politician barn jacket. As Roll Call observed in 2016, the Duck Traditional Coat by Carhartt, which costs about $120, has been used by politicians from John Kerry to Sarah Palin. The choice indicates not just that they are normal people with accessible taste in jackets, but that ushering in the future (or campaigning) is physical labor. Suits are for people in glass towers; Carhartt jackets are for people on the ground, in the dirt.
It is the same reason (male) politicians are known for rolling up their sleeves: to show they’re here to do the work. The gesture, wrote Robin Givhan, fashion critic at the Washington Post, “is the candidates’ awkward attempt to step outside the safety of their dark-suited uniforms and show themselves as manly men who could lay bricks to support their family and throw a punch to defend its honor.” Look at those forearms, the rolled-sleeve says. You can’t get those from sitting around and reading briefs!
Givhans continues: “The hoisting of the sleeves announces that the candidate has come to speak the truth, both plainly and earnestly. He has stripped himself of the formality associated with blazers, suits and navy gabardine.” The bare forearm says: “We’re all friends here.” The bare forearm says: “I’ll give it to you straight.” The bare forearm says: “I have no tricks up my sleeve, because I have literally rolled it up.”
But O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez are taking it one step further: What they wear signals the extent of their exertion not because these clothes are practical, though they are, but because they are quite literally wrecked. We want authenticity in all things, including our politicians, and what is more authentic that sweat? It is not an implication of hard work; it is physical evidence.
The aesthetics of political labor may not be limited to Democrats, but after Trump won the 2016 presidential election — often assumed (correctly or not) to be the result of likely Democrats not showing up at the polls — the 2018 candidates have been focused on mobilizing would-be voters with renewed vigor. And it isn’t just volunteer canvassers going door-to-door (though there are a lot of them, including Oprah); this year, candidates are pounding the pavement themselves. And then, as proof, they are talking a lot about their shoes.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democrat running for State House of Representatives on Long Island, “campaigns door to door in sandals with Band-Aids protecting her heels,” reported amNewYork. In West Virginia, ex-military Democratic congressional candidate Richard Ojeda urged supporters to “put your boots on the ground.” True to his word, he is often pictured wearing combat boots, which not only establish his patriotic credentials, but reframe the streets of West Virginia as the new front lines.
“In a year of campaigning, Ocasio-Cortez and her volunteers made a hundred and seventy thousand phone calls, knocked on a hundred and twenty thousand doors, and sent a hundred and twenty thousand text messages,” wrote David Remnick at the New Yorker. The worn-through shoes were proof of “the hustle.”
“It’s important to note that [the] shoes are sneakers from an accessible fashion chain, and not luxury designer or dress shoes,” said fashion historian Charlene Lau. The shoes — a pair of & Other Stories zip-up sneakers, according to Footwear News — positioned Ocasio-Cortez as “approachable” and “relatable,” Lau said. (& Other Stories is a sister brand of H&M.)
In a different and more Texan way, O’Rourke’s drenched shirts signify the same. “Decades of Gatorade commercials weren’t lying about sweat as key signifier of an idealized ‘hustle,’” offered Dan Chamberlain at the Cut, noting that O’Rourke had, as of mid-October, raised $38.1 million in three months.
One can imagine that O’Rourke’s sweat may have been somewhat less intentional — Texas is indeed quite warm! — but it seems that he is intentional about embracing it, given the continued existence of undershirts.
The open display of effort signals that the candidates are not acting upon their birthright. Worn shoes and wet shirts are not the standard dress code of the political class. And so the clothes position them not just as normal people, but as insurgents, candidates without the monied backing that might let them sit in air conditioning and make calls wearing shoes with intact soles.