As I watched the memorial service for Madeleine Albright, I was reminded of how often women embed messages in how they dress. Ms. Albright, of course, was well known for her pins—snails to criticize the slow deliberations of congress, snakes to jab Sadam Hussein about his dismissive comments about her leadership. At the service, a number of women mirrored Albright’s custom—Hilary Clinton wore an angel pin and Albright’s daughter’s wore dove pins—honoring the woman and the tradition.

While this first female United States Secretary of State is famous for these messages, she is surely not the only woman to make dress part of symbolic gesture. There are obvious costumes that come to mind—for instance, anything any member of the British royal family wears—color, style, outrageous hats, and that purse that the Queen always carries (have you ever wondered what was in that purse?). Regular everyday American women mark important events with symbolic dress: marriage ceremonies in a long white gown, whether the ceremony is in a garden or in a cathedral and whether this is the first marriage or the third. On the fourth of July, Americans wear all sorts of combinations of red, white, and blue. And in the last 2 months, many Americans and Europeans, women and men, have shown solidarity with Ukraine by wearing yellow and blue.

There are, however, other symbolic sartorial decisions that situate a woman in a place and time. For instance, I can remember when wearing a pants suit was seen as a mark of rebellion, frowned on by male leadership. In fact, in 1975 I was told that I probably would not be appointed to an academic position because I wore pants to the interview. Certainly, times have changed. I have heard many women rejecting pants suits as anti-feminist, as an unflattering attempt to mimic a male model of leadership. I still think, however, the disagreement over women’s showing their legs retains an echo of old guard sexism.

When Kamala Harris was named Vice President of the United States, I had several animated conversations with women friends who speculated on what she would wear when she was sworn in as VP. I would have bet my collection of Edith Wharton first editions that it would be a pants suit; my friends were insistent that she would wear a skirted suit or a dress. My friends were right. Of course, I do not know why Vice President Harris decided on a dress that day, but I do remember that when I was planning my retirement dinner at The College of New Jersey in 2018, my chief of staff passed on to me a conversation she had with a member of the College’s advancement shop: “Please try to convince Bobby that she should wear a dress to the celebration, not pants.” And what did I wear? A dress.