Updated: Aug 24
Dubbed the “Notorious RBG,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood at a humble 5 feet tall, but acted larger than life with her impenetrable strength towering over the nation. Ginsburg served on the US Supreme Court for twenty-seven years and has been hailed as a trailblazing feminist and legal icon. She died at the age of 87 due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer; throughout her long battle with cancer, she steadfastly continued her court work, unwilling to let her health get the best of her.
During her tenure as the second female justice, Ginsburg was a champion for progressive causes, specifically fighting for gender equality and other marginalized groups. All while advocating for equal treatment of women’s rights, she never shied away from embracing her femininity— if anything, she used it to empower her stance.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Justice Ginsburg explained that the collar originated because the “standard robe [was] made for a man” and she along with Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice, thought that it would be appropriate for a piece of the judicial wardrobe to be “something typical of a woman.” They claimed a traditionally male-centric outfit attached to a male-dominated role, and unapologetically feminized it to adhere to their identity. Thus the notion of the collar stands not only for feminism, but feminism associated with capability, knowledge, and agency.
Her work on the judicial bench created great change for women’s rights. In United States v. Virginia, she argued that Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and stated in the majority opinion that gender equality is a constitutional right. For announcing majority opinions that she supported, Ginsburg would typically wear a yellow and beige crocheted necklace embellished with a gold chain, beadings, and delicate drooping details. The collar was a sentimental gift from her law clerks making the optimistic, graceful jabot appropriate for giving her stamp of approval. Aside from majority court rulings, Ginsburg wore the golden number during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union 2013 speech as her subtle blessing.
Furthermore, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions largely impacted the course of modern American history by serving as a symbol of disapproval of unjust power and a need for a more truthful order to be enacted. In one of Ginsburg’s notorious dissents, the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore reversed a recount dispute in the 2000 election that ultimately handed Bush the electoral votes and presidency. However, RBG’s opinion was made infamously clear. “I dissent” broke the court’s decorum accentuating her opinion on the degree of unconstitutionalism in the results. Widely recognized for her scathing dissent and the accompanying collar, her iconic dissent collar from Banana Republic features a gothic spiky necklace adorned with rhinestones. Since 2012, the punk-esque look was used to express her dissenting position on Supreme Court decisions and made frequent appearances throughout the current administration as she faced an increasingly conservative majority on the Supreme Court bench. RBG also infamously wore the bold statement piece the day following Donald Trump’s election to show her disapproval of the results. Given that the “Notorious RBG” nickname was issued following a fiery dissent on voters’ rights, the boldness of this bedazzled, empowering piece matched her equally spiky opinions making it “fitting for dissents.”
Outside of work, Ginsburg remained active in her lifestyle, regularly attending opera productions in Washington and at The Met. Ginsburg was a longtime opera fan, citing it as her escapist hobby away from briefs and opinions. She even made her operatic debut in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, somehow managing to satirize Trump’s false accusations of Obama’s legitimacy as an American citizen, quote her own dissents, and cause the largest “roars of love at the curtain call” all in one show. It’s with no surprise that one of her many collars would encompass her passions off the bench. This bold collar is from the Metropolitan Opera Gift Shop and a replica of the black-and-white collar the titular character wears from Verdi's opera Stiffelio. By donning this statement collar, Ginsburg feminizes the masculine role of Stifellio and applies her steely judgment towards the law.
And finally, of her many collars, from intricate to edgy to vibrant, her clear favorite was a white crocheted lace collar from Cape Town, South Africa. It’s simple, delicate, and understated— perhaps the best reflection of Ginsburg herself. It has become immortalized with her image, not just for frequently appearing in official portraits and State of the Union addresses, but because its seemingly unadorned appearance conveys sincerity and clarity that the revered Justice has always given towards our country. The lace collar in all of its acclaim underlines how her legacy encompasses her Supreme court majority opinions and dissents, and how both go hand-in-hand in championing for the democracy and rights she believed in.
With her death just six weeks before Election Day, there was a conscientious battle over when the next Justice should be nominated and sworn in. Ginsburg wanted her legacy to be honored by the president elected in November. And still, despite Mitch McConnell refusing to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during Obama’s administration four years ago, Amy Coney Barrett has already been sworn in, just over a month after Justice Ginsburg’s death, cementing the already conservative bench towards a 6-3 majority. The notion of Barrett taking RBG’s judicial seat is a wound that stings bitterly and inevitability will have legal ramifications that may be felt for the next generation. Her dying wish already discarded, Ginsburg’s life work and legacy feel at risk of being undone.
But perhaps what hurts most is that girls across the nation have lost a prominent role model who stood for more than just democracy and its ideals. Her death wasn’t just political, it felt personal. A judicial icon who carried flair, spunk, and a resilient attitude in both work and wardrobe inspired the minds and hearts of females of all kinds. From top-ranking CEOs to up-and-coming activists to excited trick-or-treaters dressing up in black robes and white collars, RBG impacted and transformed the lives of many. With this thought in mind, although Barrett will step into Ginsburg’s seat, she will never be able to fill the shoes that cemented feminist agency in America, and no one will ever be able to erase RBG’s narrative.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will continue to live vicariously in every aspect of our lives through the conviction of our law, history, and advocacy. So remember: to agree, to dissent, to live life, and to authentically be yourself— unrestrained from the oppressions RBG has fought so tirelessly for us.