Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush of Missouri has brought thrifting back in vogue. “The reality of being a regular person going to Congress is that it’s really expensive to get the business clothes I need for the Hill. So I’m going thrift shopping tomorrow,” Bush tweeted last week. She later shared a trio of selfies amid the racks and snippets of a mini fashion show in the dressing room where she modeled her smashing finds—a maroon patterned blazer, a tangerine peacoat and a long violet trench.
True confession: Not only am I a loyal secondhand shopper, but two decades ago a friend and I opened our own brick-and-mortar swap shop. Dubbed “A Joint in the Family Way” by The New York Times in 2003, it was equal parts community haven and source for affordable clothing for kids. I spent my days buried in piles of other people’s cast-offs, which inevitably were a proxy for story sharing and camaraderie. As quoted in the Times review, I often felt akin to a bartender. Thrifting is a highly communal experience for all who partake—a downright democratic phenomenon in many ways.
Which is partly why Bush’s shopping saga and the viral response it generated were so moving to me. I have followed her political journey with much anticipation. The first Black woman elected to Congress from Missouri—breaking a 50-year Democratic dynasty hold on the seat she won—she is a Saint Louis native, mother, nurse, ordained pastor and activist who ran successfully on a platform of standing up and for Black lives. And now she is an emerging, high-profile member of Congress required to look like D.C. establishment two months before she even earns her first paycheck there.
By going public about this seemingly private detail—what to wear and how to afford and acquire it—Bush has sparked a vital conversation on the obstacles that can make it hard for working-class people, and especially women, to participate in politics.
For women candidates, the deck is stacked from the outset. According to the Pew Research Center, around three-quarters of women and 60 percent of men said it was easier for men to reach high political office. With their reliance on small donors to fuel their campaigns, women running have to work twice as hard to raise the funds needed (a successful U.S. House race costs on average $1.5 million). A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice shows the problem is most acute for women of color.
When it comes to dressing the part, the raw and relative expense for women often skews higher than for men, too. As Bush notes in her tweets, the “pink tax”—aka gender-based pricing, a well-documented practice that was outlawed this year in New York state—is one such way women are penalized.
Of course, though, the costs borne by women on