When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political establishment with her June primary upset against a 10-term incumbent, one of the first things she did was point to the shoes that helped get her there.
Two days after her victory, Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo of the shoes she'd worn on the campaign trail to knock on thousands of doors in New York's 14th congressional district. The zip-up sneakers are dirty and cracked, with holes splitting each of the soles.
"Some folks are saying I won for 'demographic' reasons," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter at the time. "1st of all, that’s false. We won w/voters of all kinds. 2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.
"Respect the hustle," she continued. "We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period."
Soon, visitors to Cornell University's Costume and Textile Collection will get the chance to see Ocasio-Cortez's "hustle" up close: The incoming congresswoman's iconic footwear will be featured in the collection's upcoming "Women Empowered: Fashions from the Frontline" exhibition, a "groundbreaking fashion exhibition chronicles how women strategically use fashion for empowerment and collective upliftment" to debut on December 6.
The exhibition was curated by students in director Denise Green's graduate course "Anthropology of the Fashioned Body," and will include other pieces like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famous dissent collars and items worn by the suffragettes of the 20th century.
Green tells Broadly Ocasio-Cortez's shoes, however, bring something different to the exhibition. Rather than being something worn deliberately, to make a statement—like Ginsburg's collars—Ocasio-Cortez's shoes are more of an accidental symbol of her political journey.
"Fashion exhibitions so often only show pristine garments," Green says. But the shoes, she says, show "how a fashion object might actually show through the material itself the hard work, determination, and commitment of someone like Ocasio-Cortez by being worn and degraded."
Green says her students first began discussing Ocasio-Cortez's shoes in class after her primary win, as part of a weekly "current events" assignment. When they began brainstorming items for the exhibition in October, her students suggested they ask Ocasio-Cortez if she'd be willing to loan them to the collection.
Green says when she reached out to Ocasio-Cortez's campaign by email, she and her campaign staff were excited about the opportunity, and had just one stipulation—that she hold onto them until the general elections earlier this month.
Green received the shoes earlier this week, and was surprised to find that, instead of arriving in a new FedEx box, as all of the other donated items in the exhibition had, Ocasio-Cortez had packaged her shoes in a "tattered box" she'd reused. Green took it to be another sign that Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent spokespeople for climate justice and the Green New Deal in her incoming congressional class, "practices what she preaches."
"The box had been reused multiple times in shipping," Green says. "It made me so happy."
Most of Ocasio-Cortez's supporters have seen the image of her shoes dozens of times now, and can call it to mind fairly easily. So what will they find seeing them in real life?
"You know when you see a rock that’s on a beach that’s been worn away by the ocean? It's like that," Green said. "You can actually see and feel the smooth surface that’s reminiscent of all of the movement those shoes have made.
"Pebbles on a beach become smooth because they’re rubbing against each other and being weathered by the crashing waves," she continued. "You can see and feel the way her feet hit the pavement over and over again."