What’s Wrong with AOC’s Vanity Fair Cover? It’s Not What You Think

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on the cover of Vanity Fair. She’s become a progressive and fashion icon, and VF’s choice to feature her is in keeping with other politically bent covers (see Breonna Taylor) this year.

As a rule, she puts a lot of care into her appearance, and it shows. Something that has struck me about The Squad in general is that they all dress well, especially Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and AOC. As a feminist who loves clothes, it’s exciting to me to see legislators looking so good. I have often dreamed of running for office and bringing my sense of style with me–something these women are doing and doing well. Women in politics often read as frumpy, even when polished, communicating that clothing is secondary to their jobs as civil servants. The Squad takes the angle that their clothes are integral to their roles as legislators.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been the subject of scrutiny because of her clothes. Her Republican colleagues have been quick to comment on her clothing, calling into question her position as a member of the working class or conversely her role as a congresswoman. Before AOC became a legislator, she was a bartender and probably only dreamed of wearing the kind of designer clothes she sports in the Vanity Fair spread. Once again, though, conservative pundits have been quick to call into question her socialist bona fides after an accounting of the retail price of her outfits came out.

Here’s the list of what she wore and its retail price according to the Daily Mail:
$2,850 Loewe suit
$1,000 Aliette suit (approx)
$3,000 Carolina Herrera suit
$2,500 Christopher John Rogers suit
$815 Wales Bonner dress
$695 Christian Louboutin slingbacks
$1,450 Diamond, gold and floating pearl Mateo earrings
$2,000 Bulgari earrings (approx) 
TOTAL:  $14,310

Right-wingers are excited to condemn the AOC spread as anti-socialist because they police women’s bodies with enthusiasm, and they want to run a negative press campaign to discredit her. They are themselves hypocrites and need to accuse others of hypocrisy to distract from their own. But what if you’re a leftist (and you are committed to not policing women’s bodies or discrediting left-leaning politicians) and working person to whom $14,000 on a handful of clothes sounds utterly outrageous? Should you too be angry with AOC? Is this a slap in the face of socialism?

This is a lot of money–95% of the annual income of anyone working full time and making minimum wage. It would even be a big chunk of AOC’s annual salary at 8%. It is also money AOC didn’t spend. It’s not even clear whether Vanity Fair paid anything for these items. I am not sure what their procurement process was, but it’s more than likely that they didn’t pay for it either.

First, let’s understand a couple things about fashion. To start, pricing, especially designer pricing, is arbitrary to the nth degree. Yes, there are some basic material and labor costs, but individual fashion houses set their profit margin, which varies and is in no way reflective of the value of the materials or working conditions. Further, market price for comparable clothing is all over the map.

Second, when we are talking about designer clothing, $2-3k for a suit is normal. Gal Gadot wore a Givenchy suit in Vantiy Fair this month, and those easily retail at $3.5K. In March, Ana De Armas was photographed in Valentino for Vanity Fair. Their dresses range from $2300 to $7900.

There’s a lot to say about high-end fashion being ridiculously priced these days. There have been some excellent critiques on pricing scales, noting that as wages have stagnated, designer clothing has increased in price, becoming less and less accessible, all while designers are also putting out ready-to-wear lines at lower price points to compensate for their flagging runway sales. Meanwhile, the rise of fast fashion is breaking down class barriers, which is a poor payoff for the environmental devastation it’s causing.

What does this mean for Representative AOC’s socialist status? First, she is a democratic socialist. This means she wants to limit capitalism, not necessarily destroy it (which isn’t pure socialism). She wants to limit it a lot, though, and she’s further left than just about anyone else in congress. That’s good! If you’re a leftist, that means she wants to pass legislation that will move your leftist agenda forward. A $2.8k suit gifted by a fashion magazine isn’t going to prevent her from doing that. Her goal isn’t to make congress poorer (at least not in their base salary), but to elevate everyone else. She hasn’t achieved that goal yet.

Another angle to this is fashion as art. I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that the folks at Vanity Fair are creating art or, at least, curating it. Clothing is at the intersection of time, geography, class, culture, gender, and personal psychology. It is layered with artistic talent and in conversation with other works and society. AOC as art makes $14K seem more reasonable. We know what socialism has to say about fashion as function here. It’s easy to recognize the classism fundamental to the fashion industry’s framework. What does socialism have to say about fashion as art? In one sense, a $15 magazine filled with high fashion is highly accessible art, democratized. You don’t even need to buy the magazine to see the images shot by Tyler Mitchell. We might not be wearing the clothes, but maybe they are meant to be seen and not worn. What does public art mean for clothing? I don’t know entirely. I don’t want to get rid of high-end fashion, even as a leftist, because I think it is art. I don’t think equality means very much if we don’t also make the world beautiful.

All of that said, I think this may have been a misstep. This spread doesn’t give rise to a stirring rendition of “Solidarity Forever,” despite the white suit AOC wears on the cover, referencing Suffragette fashion of yesteryear. Unfortunately, the price point is inconsistent with her image of connecting to the people. Most of us will never even touch clothes this expensive. It’s what we hate about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer: being out of touch.

AOC is not wealthy compared to her fellow congresspeople. She is wealthy compared to the American people, and that scale matters. Trump cheated on his taxes. Pelosi orders expensive ice cream by the freezer-full. AOC now has been gifted a designer suit.

In contrast, this last week, Ilhan Omar was featured on the cover of Teen Vogue with her daughter Isri. Both of them opted to wear items from their own wardrobe. Omar looked regal without labels. I think this is a move AOC could have made as well.

Another option would have been to select from designers working on transparency in supply chain, paying a living wage at every stage of the garment production process, ensuring safe working environments, and moving toward carbon neutral production. A $2800 suit seems less alarming with that kind of dedication to improving some of fashion’s worst features, even if the price point is still unattainable for most of us. She also could have exclusively worn American or Latinx designers. This indulgence ultimately feels like a lost opportunity.

Fashion has long been used to delineate class. From sumptuary laws to conspicuous consumption, there is a lot of status baked into clothing. Ocasio-Cortez has taken a huge leap up into the governing class, and this spread shows that. She’s unquestionably a sitting U.S. Congressperson and no longer a bartender.

Ultimately, if you are a leftist, I think thoughtful critique of the spread in Vanity Fair is warranted, which is different from shaming her for wearing nice clothes or accepting an expensive gift. AOC is as far left as congress gets. To maintain her image as a congressperson of the people, she needs to make choices in her dress, even editorialized items she doesn’t own, that reflect that.