Sandra Day O'Connor's Colorful Suits Solidified Her As “Queen Of The Court”

She was a force to be reckoned with.

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WASHINGTON - 1981:  (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES)  Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in before the Senate Judic...

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, died on December 1, 2023. And while her legacy as a trailblazer and fearless advocate for abortion and civil rights will forever proceed her, the former justice’s equally brazen style will also be remembered. In fact, O’Connor’s love for colorful suits can easily be interpreted as archival symbols of her penchant for living life boldly and on her own terms.

Perhaps it was her scrappy upbringing as a self-proclaimed “Arizona cowgirl” that planted a seed of rebellion in O’Connor at an early age. Whatever the root, the Southwest native ignored societal expectations throughout the span of her career, including how she should dress as a high government official. To be clear, O’Connor had deep reverence and respect for the uniform black robes worn by the justices. In a 2013 article for Smithsonian Magazine, she wrote: “I am fond of the symbolism of this tradition. It shows that all of us judges are engaged in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law. We have a common responsibility.”

That said, when she wasn’t donning the obligatory solemn garb, O’Connor often compensated by embracing suits in virtually every color in the rainbow. In fact the former Arizona judge chose a vibrant royal violet skirt set during her confirmation hearings when seeking the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Was this ensemble choice a foreshadowing of her role as “queen of the court” (a title given to her by one of her biographers, Linda Hirshman)? Perhaps — O’Connor was sworn in to the high honor just weeks later. Yes, amidst a sea of men in black suits, she enjoyed — nay, insisted — on standing out and making her presence known, and her colorful ensembles allowed her to do just that.

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This love of color only continued throughout the justice’s 25-year tenure. There was the cherry red number she wore for a Minnesota Women Lawyers convention in 2001, which she accented beautifully with a string of pearls and gold earrings. In a more playful moment, O’Connor opted for a hot pink blazer over a coordinating polka dot blouse and relaxed beige trousers for a photoshoot in her chambers in 2002. And then there was the Women In Military Service For America memorial in 2005, where the justice donned a bright teal skirt suit, topped off with a printed silk neck scarf (another common accessory in her wardrobe).

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O’Connor has never really spoken of her fashion choices, outside of her aforementioned thoughts on the traditional black robes, but she’s always been an unpredictable force who bucked tradition. So, her style choices may have simply been a natural component to this life ethos, whether intentional or not. Perhaps, even, her colorful wardrobe was simply in effort to better be seen. “For both men and women the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show,” said O’Connor in 1990 at the 6th Annual Olin Conference: Women in Power. “As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we'll all be better off for it.”

Well said by the woman who clearly lived her life in technicolor.