Rep. Frederica Wilson didn't deliberately don her signature hat to make change. But you can't argue with results.
"When you stand out in a crowd of policymakers, people pay attention to what you have to say," Wilson said in a new Netflix docuseries. "It helps you get s– done."
Wilson was among the many people featured in "Worn Stories," a limited series that explores why individuals wear what they do. The congresswoman appears in the "Uniform" episode where she details how her fascination with fashion and, simultaneously, equality began.
"Even before you speak, you have made an impression by what you wear," Wilson told the Miami Herald.
Born and raised in Miami at a time when, as Wilson notes in the episode, the city "was extremely racist," she credited her grandmother and namesake Frederica Finley-Burke-Roberts for instilling in her the importance of dressing.
"I wanted to dress up because my grandmother dressed up," Wilson said. It's characteristic that the congresswoman maintains to this day; whether speaking in the chambers of Congress or flying across the country, she can be seen wearing an eye-catching suit with matching heels and, of course, the hat.
"People get on an airplane [wearing] a jogging suit and sneakers. I get on an airplane dressed like I'm going to work," she added.
Wilson's staple wasn't always hats though. As a little girl she loved bows, so much so that when her favorite yellow one blew off while she was riding the bus, she screamed for the driver to stop. To the surprise of her mother and everyone else on the bus, the driver actually put on the brakes and waited.
"That was a big deal," she said with a hearty laugh — especially in the Jim Crow south. The bus driver was white.
"We told all the neighbors," Wilson said, still laughing. "... I went to school, I told all the children, I told my teachers."
Experiences like these, however comical they might be in hindsight, were silently shaping Wilson's social consciousness. So was her father Thirlee Smith's active participation in the fight for civil rights.
"The Ku Klux Klan used to ride through the neighborhood, and because my father, who was a civil rights leader, was teaching people how to vote, they didn't like that," Wilson revealed in the docuseries. "We would have meetings at our home and I would go under the table and listen. I learned so much from watching my father fight for Black people."
Although filmed the day before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Miami, Wilson's episode had renewed importance following the passage of Georgia's voting law in late March, just days before the series was released on April 1. The congresswoman was audibly disappointed, especially considering what her father had gone through.
"I can imagine that my daddy is turning over in his grave," she said.
Still, Wilson holds out hope. The new voting law — as well as the more than 40 states pushing for similar restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice — was purely reactionary because of the "change that Black people brought to America in 2020," she said. Just like Black Americans have used fashion as a form of expression during times of immense oppression, they will find a way to make our voices heard in the voting booth, Wilson maintains.
"People like my father, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and all the other people who died bringing us to this point — they will help guide us," she said.©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.