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First lady of Brazil turns heads with evolution from activist to style icon

Rosangela noticeably changed her style since being thrust into spotlight when her husband took office on January 1

March 16, 2023
Brazils new first lady, Rosangela Janja da Silva. Twitter/lodomilson
Brazil's new first lady, Rosangela Janja da Silva. Twitter/lodomilson

SAO PAULO: Whether sporting a red Workers’ Party star on her wedding dress, breaking taboos by wearing pants to her husband’s inauguration, or rocking eco-friendly clothing, Brazil’s new first lady is turning heads and making statements with her fashion choices. 

Rosangela "Janja" da Silva, a 56-year-old sociologist, has noticeably changed her style since being thrust into the spotlight when her husband, veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, took office on January 1.

The long-time Workers’ Party activist, who married the twice-widowed Lula, 77, last year, has glammed up her previously low-key look.

She has replaced her go-to jeans and sneakers with a wardrobe carefully chosen to champion her favorite causes, including women’s rights, Indigenous peoples and the environment -- not to mention Brazilian designers.

"She’s made Brazilian fashion one of the elements she uses to construct her public persona as a feminist and progressive who cares about social issues," says Benjamin Rosenthal, a personal marketing specialist at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Da Silva has had the nation hanging on her fashion choices since at least her wedding day last May, when she and Lula paused a grueling presidential campaign to make their five-year relationship official in a glamorous private ceremony in Sao Paulo.

She walked down the aisle in a flowing white dress featuring a tiny red jewel in a star embroidered on the low-cut shoulder -- a wink to the symbol of the Workers’ Party which brought them together.

She also wore a subtle red star for Lula’s inauguration in January -- this time, on the soles of her strappy high heels.

First lady in pants 

The first lady -- who dislikes that title, calling it "patriarchal" -- made an even bolder inauguration day statement by wearing pants, the first time a Brazilian president’s wife had not worn a dress to the ceremony.

Da Silva opted for a shimmering pearl pantsuit by Brazilian designers Helo Rocha and Camila Pedrosa, the same team that created her wedding dress.

"Pants are a symbol of women’s emancipation," says Rocha.

"In Brasilia, until about 20 years ago, women couldn’t even wear them into Congress," where Lula took the oath of office.

The silk pantsuit was dyed with rhubarb and a classically Brazilian plant, the cashew fruit, and elegantly embroidered with traditional Indigenous designs.

Da Silva has also drawn attention with a blouse stamped with the image of early-20th-century feminist icon Maria Bonita; a blazer embroidered by a women’s cooperative; an eco-friendly skirt made of fabric scraps; and outfits made from recycled clothing by Brazilian brand Reptilia.

"She infuses the role of first lady with the practicality of a woman who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty," says Reptilia’s 36-year-old founder, Heloisa Strobel.

"You’d never expect to see her in a tight dress she can barely walk in."

That is a fairly accurate description of a typical outfit worn by Da Silva’s predecessor, Michelle Bolsonaro, the devoutly Evangelical Christian wife of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022).

Another contrast: Da Silva has also brought a splash of bright color to the presidential palace, switching up the pastel tones favored by her predecessor.

For example, interest in Reptilia grew in January after "Janja" wore one of their pieces -- a skirt in overlapping bright red hues -- during her and Lula’s first official foreign trip, to Argentina.

"I want to take Brazilian designers wherever I go," Da Silva told Vogue magazine in an interview that month.

Not just flip-flops

Entrepreneurs in Brazil’s $29.7 billion textile and fashion industry are thrilled to have the support.

Da Silva "wants to show the best design being produced in Brazil, beyond the stereotypical palm tree print," says Strobel.

Airon Martin, creative director of another of Da Silva’s favorite local brands, Misci, agrees.

"The world knows Brazil as the land of flip-flops and carnival. But we also have a powerful luxury goods industry, with incredible silks and cottons," says the 31-year-old, who has big plans to take his designs abroad.

"Fashion crystallizes a sociopolitical moment," he adds.