A Look At Shirley Chisholm’s Unapologetic Style




As America celebrated Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential nominee for a major party, the Internet was quick to remind the public of the legendary Shirley Chisholm. Shirley was an American politician who is remembered for her 1972 run at political office and her fierce determination that continues to inspire today. What’s also memorable about Shirley was her political fashions. Just like her beliefs and policies, Shirley Chisholm developed a uniform that was unapologetic.

Who Was Shirley Chisholm?

“She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us,” said president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Robert E. Williams of Shirley. Although a major statement, it was quite true of the Brooklyn-born politician.

Shirley began her start in politics in 1968 as the first African American woman elected to Congress. She soon used her position to become the first African American woman to run for the United States presidency. She was not elected for the 1972 Democratic bid, but her brave run broke barriers.

Aside from making monumental firsts, Shirley was also an advocate for better education and employment opportunities for minorities, and she opposed the 1969 U.S. military draft. She was also an ardent feminist who helped influence America’s second wave.

As Shirley advocated for progress, she also had to deal with hate and criticism for being an African American female politician. She battled it with a clear mind and passion. William Howard, Shirley’s former campaign treasurer stated her personality as,“ Anyone that came in contact with her, they had a feeling of a careness, and they felt that she was very much a part of each individual as she represented her district.”

Shirley’s Fashion

Like her politics, Shirley’s appearance was reliable and unapologetic. Throughout her career, Shirley sported a sculpted bouffant, cat-eye glasses, and ladylike suits. The politician embraced bright colors and prints, from a bright white classic 1960s boxy skirt suit to a silken ensemble accessorized with a bundle of pearls. “She always wore suits, little suits..I say little suits because she was a small woman…I don’t think she wore pants,” Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalled about Shirley’s wardrobe. “ I remember she always ordered her clothes. We didn’t have Internet at the time, but she always ordered them over various manufactures.” As Shirley was one of the few congresswomen during her time, she may have helped usher in the ever popular power suit for modern American female politicians.

Three years after her death in 2008, artist Kadir Nelson painted a portrait of Shirley. She is depicted standing in a three-quarter stance with her arms crossed and her index finger raised. This piece is noted for its display of Shirley’s strong manner, but it also illustrates her colorful choice in clothing. Similar to Shirley’s style, painted is a structured 1960s suit set with a loud, brazen pattern. Also noted is her signature bouffant and cat-eye glasses, which add to Shirley’s no nonsense look.

Unlike today, where an American female politician cannot look too mannish or too frivolous, Shirley did not hide her femininity.  Instead, she understood and kept her own personal style despite the political repercussions of being an African-American woman in American politics.

To learn more about Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, visit her page at the History, Art, and Archives of the US House of Representatives website.

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