Politicians are often known for an iconic look. Vladimir Lenin had a shaved head. Pierre Trudeau wore rose boutonnières. Chinese leaders still wear Mao suits to black-tie events. And Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is always seen in her omnipresent blue, and sometimes green, jackets.
Asked if she is trying to send a message, or establish a trademark, by her fashion, Preckwinkle responded, "No. I just like blue. And actually it's mostly blue and green."
Years ago, when she was in City Council, Preckwinkle read an article about how women in high-profile positions oftentimes wound up wearing the same color palette as powerful men: black, brown and grey. She looked in her closet, saw her clothes were the same colors, realized she didn't like that and went shopping.
Preckwinkle also has a red jacket she wears on Valentine's Day and to events about heart health, one pink jacket she wears to events for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and a black suit for mourning. For black-tie events, she just wears a black suit.
And she does own blue jeans, as Hyde Parkers who see her walking her dog after work hours can attest.
Toni Preckwinkle was not thrilled to discuss her personal fashion, at one point recalling the criticism that former First Lady Michelle Obama — a Harvard Law School graduate, she observed — endured for her sleeveless dresses.
"As I've said, this is not a question that men in public life get about their clothes or whatever," she said.
She came of age in the 1960s and '70s. She relished taking classes on African and African American culture as a University of Chicago student but never adopted famously expressive mid-century Black fashion. (She is about the same age as U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), who is known today for incorporating Africana into his clothing.) After graduating, she worked as a teacher and said she mostly wore slacks and blouses in the classroom.
"The truth is I've never had any interest in fashion," she said. "I always thought it was just kind of frivolous, you know? I never cared that much about what I wore, and never judged people about what they wore."
This is not at all to say that Preckwinkle has no taste in — or eye for — visual style. As an alderman, she chose the Margaret Taylor-Burroughs works on display underneath the 53rd Street viaduct in Hyde Park.
A large tapestry is her background in Zoom interviews from her office at the County Building, and she listed the work on display at the office: "One oil, one chalk drawing, a Native American print, a photograph of Starved Rock, six African American masks and a frame of Native American knives."
And Preckwinkle does have a passion for collecting jewelry — particularly Native American jewelry, chiefly lapis and turquoise (because those are blue and green) and silver, as well some onyx and coral.
"I do go to antique shows, which I love, being a history teacher," she said. A friend is a jeweler and looks for items for her collection.
"I wear what I like."
Now in her 30th year of public office, Preckwinkle is known for a consistency of left-of-center political positions, loyalty and mentorship to allies (she helped launch now-Attorney General Kwame Raoul's legislative career even after he challenged her in an aldermanic election), and profound professional work ethic.
Having people pay attention to you, and racking up both accomplishments and higher offices for 30 years in public office as a Black woman in the United States, is no small feat.
"From a political sense, if you just dress conservatively, then your clothing is not the focus of who you are, right? It's what you're saying and what you're doing, and the clothing is kind of taken out of the equation," she said. "The more flamboyantly you dress, the more the focus is on your dress and not on the substance of what you're saying or doing."