Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman On The Politics of Fashion

Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman On The Politics of Fashion

V goes to the New York Times to sit with Vanessa Friedman to discuss the importance of analyzing the fashion of political leaders.

V goes to the New York Times to sit with Vanessa Friedman to discuss the importance of analyzing the fashion of political leaders.

Text: Christina Cacouris

The sartorial choices of celebrities or political leaders are never without public scrutiny; many find the practice demeaning, but it's not without purpose. We first introduced the topic in "What We Talk About When We Talk About the First Lady's Dress," unpicking why critics like Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times face such harsh criticism for her coverage of political fashion, but why her criticisms are a necessary addition; to investigate further, we journeyed uptown to sit down with Friedman herself to talk about the trials and tribulations of covering political leader's dress.

I saw you at a panel recently and you said you’d never experienced the level of vitriol as you have the past year compared to your entire career.

You should see my Twitter account. [Laughs]

On Melania’s stilettos? That was a great piece.

Many people did not agree!

In your articles, I feel you articulate very clearly why it is we’re looking at these things, and why it’s important to deconstruct them, and yet people still comment and say “I don’t understand, why are we looking at this, this is superficial.”

The truth is, I think a lot of people are not actually reading the story. They’re using it as an excuse to vent, which is true of almost anything on social media. It’s one of the weird phenomena of that form. It’s not just me; they do it to other people too. And so you just have to take a breath and say, “I believe what I believe, and I’m sorry you don’t agree.”

But why do you think fashion hits such a nerve with people? Even in the art world, people still get very worked up about this idea of fashion being art, as fashion being a serious form of communication. Why does it anger people so much?

I think because they feel it denigrates; they think fashion is superficial and any association with it automatically denigrates the thing it is being associated with. So if we claim fashion is art, that somehow reflects poorly on what has classically been defined as art. If we talk about someone’s clothing, that is not giving them their due as a person of substance. And when it comes to politics, [that is] ignoring what are inarguably more serious issues, such as disaster aid, and people who are starving, and income inequality, and racism, and all of the things we’re wrestling with today.

I think the point they’re missing is that it’s not [just] about the clothes; it is about the way they’re being used to manipulate perception, and get us—the media, the electorate—to do what they want. You’re never going to ignore the way money is used as a lever to enforce power. So why would you ignore what is admittedly a more minor tool, but is still a tool?

Do you think we will ever reach a point where people come around to this idea and understand that, or will it always be an uphill battle?

I think more people understand it than used to. I think the fact that Bill Clinton was willing to say “boxers not briefs,” and Barack Obama was willing to say “I wear only blue and navy and grey suits to reduce the amount of choice that I have to make every morning.” The fact that Mark Zuckerberg talks about his grey t-shirts. The more people that are willing to talk about it, the less of an issue it becomes. So if everyone talked about it, great! I think it would be much less of a source of contention. Brigitte Macron did a great job when Elle [asked] about talking about what she wears and she said: “Look, if it’s good for French fashion, why not?” and then moved on.

Why do you think—you mentioned past presidents, Mark Zuckerberg—why do you think that we focus almost exclusively on womenswear and not as much on menswear? Is it less spectacle?

There’s more to say. Which is always regarded as a bad thing; women have all this, they have to make all these choices, and then it’s not fair, and everyone comments on all their choices. But it can also be a very good thing, because it means you have more weapons at your disposal.

I recently spoke to Carlo Brandelli of Kilgour who said that there is a lot to say and analyze with menswear, but because it’s just so much more nuanced, people don’t want to look that far into it.

I don't know. I write endlessly about Justin Trudeau’s socks. I mean, it’s a detail, but whatever. I think it is more acceptable for men to wear very consistent uniforms, the president certainly does, and so then there is less to say because you can say it once and then what, you’re going to say the exact same thing the next day? That’s very boring. So they’re limiting your ability to react. And I think Hilary Clinton did that when she was on the campaign trail and she started wearing very low-key trouser suits for a while. It did take that out of the conversation.

Going back to Melania, do you think if people start reading these articles more carefully they’ll get the point, or is there something else you’re hoping that people will eventually take away? 

We got a lot of pushback on Facebook from people saying “why is the New York Times writing about something so superficial?” but on Wednesday morning it was the most read article on the website. So there are people who are very interested and there’s people who just see the headline and want to vent at you. As a writer you’re happy if someone’s reacting to you, so I’m not trying to provoke people, but I’m glad that they’re paying attention on some level. And at the very least, I think your role as a critic is both to tell observers to help them think about what they’re seeing, but also to help the people you’re writing about think about what they’re doing. When I’m talking about a politicians dress, in a way I’m also saying to them, “this is how what you did is being perceived. Here is something that you can think about or incorporate into your political strategy going forward.”

As a public figure you need to be aware all the time, irritating as it may be—and I really do appreciate that it probably is like just a pain in the neck to always have to think all this stuff through every time you step out the door—but you do. That is your job now. You’re in an incredibly powerful position and it just goes with the territory. So be smart, and use it in any way possible.

Credits: IMAGE COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

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