Nancy Pelosi’s plane may have landed in Taiwan under the cover of night, but her arrival was, in every other way, orchestrated to be visible.
Descending onto the asphalt at Taipei Songshan Airport on Tuesday evening, the US House speaker shone out from the darkness in a pink pantsuit. Amid a sea of black and gray (fellow Democrat Mark Takano’s powder blue number notwithstanding), her outfit recognized that this was no time to be understated.
It was not simply a case of sticking out for the cameras, however.
Pelosi’s controversial trip to the self-governing island is, in itself, symbolic. And if her goal is to signal America’s commitment to a democracy that she described – somewhat like her suit – as “vibrant,” then wearing pink was also a form of political communication.
There had been no mid-flight costume change. Earlier that day, she had worn the same suit with heels and string of pearls (the glamorous but unshowy accessory du jour for US politicians) to visit Malaysia’s parliament. This makes her decision to arrive in Taiwan wearing it no less deliberate, though. Confident, powerful but unthreatening, pink appeared to frame her presence as an act of friendship towards Taiwan, not belligerence toward China, which has accused her of “knowingly and maliciously” creating a crisis.
What has commentators really guessing is whether Pelosi intentionally nodded to another of America’s great pantsuit aficionados: Hillary Clinton.
In 1995, the then-first lady wore a remarkably similar outfit to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she famously declared: “Women’s rights are human rights.” Like Pelosi’s trip, Clinton’s speech was somewhat controversial. During her address, she detailed threats facing women globally – including in China – and made thinly veiled swipes at her host’s intolerance of dissent.
The moment was, unsurprisingly but ironically, censored by Beijing. And if Pelosi were aiming to evoke a historical memory, then that of Clinton openly criticizing China on mainland soil would certainly be a subtly provocative one.
We will likely never know. As with many female leaders, Pelosi rarely entertains questions about her style choices. But there is little doubt that the House speaker appreciates – and regularly harnesses – the power of clothing, from coordinated facemasks and “power scarves” to the suffragette-white she and others wore to protest then-President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020. Along with numerous Democrat congresswomen, Pelosi also wore white to Trump’s joint address to Congress in 2017, while her red Max Mara “Fire Coat” spoke volumes ahead of her infamous showdown with the former president a year later.
There was the hot pink suit she wore on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the one she sported (with pink pumps) for the House committee chairs’ latest official photo and the fuchsia dress she chose for the 116th Congress’ swearing-in, which featured a record-breaking 127 women. She can even be seen wearing a pink blazer in her official Twitter profile picture.
In each case, the shade exuded feminine power. Just as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applied red lipstick like “war paint” and Kamala Harris wore all-white for her acceptance speech as America’s first female vice president, Pelosi treats her choice of outfit as another string to her political bow.
One can read too much into politicians’ wardrobes. Indeed, it may have been no more than a coincidence that Tsai Chi-chang, deputy speaker of Taiwan’s legislature, appeared to respond to Pelosi’s suit by wearing a pink tie to meet her on Wednesday morning.
But clothes carry symbolism – and if the roars of approval on social media are anything to go by, the message behind Pelosi’s pink suit was heard in Taipei, Beijing and beyond.