The white suit, a potent symbol, has emerged again. There are few items of clothing in a politician’s closet that have been worn with such intention and acquired as much symbolic weight over time. The story of Justin Jones, a 27-year-old Democrat from Tennessee and one of the youngest Black state legislators in the country, has brought the issue to the forefront once again.
On April 6, Mr. Jones and his colleague legislator Justin J. Pearson were ejected from the legislature for protesting for gun regulation, gaining national attention. After a fiery speech on the House floor the day he was expelled, Mr. Jones was reinstated by the Nashville Metropolitan Council, the governing body for his district, on Monday. However, by that time, his image had gone global, becoming a symbol of what it meant to stand up to the “flexing of false power.”
The day he was expelled, Mr. Jones wore what The Tennessean dubbed his “trademark white suit” (white shirt, light brown tie, hair tied back in a ponytail). An unforgettable snapshot was taken as he emerged from the wooden cell, raised fist aglow from every direction.
In 1917, the N.A.A.C.P. led a silent protest parade down Fifth Avenue with 10,000 African-Americans wearing white to show their opposition to racism and anti-Black violence. In 2020, 15,000 people gathered in front of the Brooklyn Museum for the Brooklyn Liberation March, a demonstration for Black trans rights inspired by the Silent demonstration.
Since then, the all-white pant suit has represented strength and unity among American women. In 2019, women in the House wore it to the State of the Union as a symbol of their increasing numbers, and Nancy Pelosi wore it when she made the decision to impeach President Donald J. Trump as speaker of the House.
Professor at Stanford Law School and author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Changed History” Richard T. Ford claims that Mr. Jones’s white suit has all of these possible connotations inside its seams. The plantation owners in their white mansions shared a practise with the Black churches of wearing their “Sunday best” on Sundays.
Mr. Jones had previously worn the same white suit on February 6 to another high-profile event, the governor’s State of the State speech, indicating that he was well aware of the power of clothing to make a message even when its wearer remained silent. He is taking its stories and making them his own.