What We Talk About When We Talk About the First Lady's Dress

What We Talk About When We Talk About the First Lady's Dress

What We Talk About When We Talk About the First Lady's Dress

Analysis of the First Lady's clothing reveals a lot more than you think.

Analysis of the First Lady's clothing reveals a lot more than you think.

Text: Christina Cacouris

One of the few things that the political left and right seem to agree on is that they equally hate analysis of Melania Trump's fashion. "Superficial" gets tossed around. "Sexist!" comments another. And for the most common refrain: "Who cares!" they cry.

Vanessa Friedman, who has been a fashion editor since 2002 — first for the Financial Times, then for the New York Times (where she is Chief Fashion Critic today) — analyses fashion’s impact, often unpicking presidential fashion and reflecting on the wardrobes of First Ladies, though lately to critical reactions. “I’ve never experienced the level of vitriol that I’ve experienced the last couple of months,” she said recently during a panel about fashion and creativity under Trump. “I have never been called an idiot so many times by people on both the left and the right.” It’s not a tradition specific to the new administration; Friedman previously analyzed Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices throughout her husband’s two-term presidency.

Why the importance? Historically, the First Lady has had a very demure role in the administration, typically choosing a social cause to champion during the presidential term (for Michelle Obama, obesity in children; for Melania Trump, internet bullying) but are usually not regularly expected or required to speak publicly, instead often relegated to her husband’s side.

This doesn’t mean these women don’t have anything to say, however. Without a microphone and podium, they turn to the world of fashion, where plenty can be said without uttering a word. Partly, Mrs. Obama’s first-ladyship was considered revolutionary because she pioneered young designers and affordable brands, breaking longstanding traditions of First Ladies wearing bespoke, exclusive labels. Instead, Obama wore J. Crew.

In such high-profile positions, these women also recognize the power in exposure. Michelle Obama rocketed Jason Wu to stardom after wearing a gown by the then-26-year-old designer at the 2009 inauguration. J. Crew reported surging stocks. Harvard Business Review conducted a study entitled “How This First Lady Moves Markets” in an attempt to quantify this effect. Her sartorial choices sent a message of inclusivity and change that was so integral to the then-President's campaign; a celebration of diversity through her wide-ranging choices.

But back to this administration. Melania Trump has also been particularly quiet during her husband’s explosive presidency; after all, she only recently moved to the White House, having spent the first four months post-inauguration in New York at Trump Tower, physically distant from the action. Thus, without much information to go off of, journalists (like Vanessa Friedman, or Robin Givhan at the Washington Post, among others) turn to what we can see; that is, how the First Lady chooses to dress herself.

Mrs. Trump is making a return to the older generations of First Ladies, with a wardrobe of Dior and Givenchy. But she wore one notable American designer for a most notable occasion: on the Inauguration, in a Ralph Lauren skirt suit. The powder blue fabric — almost a Gainsboroughian shade — is packed with symbols of motherhood, of innocence, an image that is important for her to maintain.

And certain items of dress are inherently politically charged: uproar ensued when Mrs. Trump wore a black dress and veil to the Vatican, but forwent a headscarf during her trip to Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country where the practice is customary. With accounts of Islamophobia on the rise, and last year's horrific "burkini" incident (in which a woman wearing a burqua-swimsuit hybrid was forced to strip it off on a French beach, as France does not allow conspicuous religious symbols in public), veils or lack thereof either aid or hinder sentiments of solidarity to those who who wear hijab and face persecution for it.

Her official White House portrait, however, saw her in a Dolce and Gabbana tuxedo jacket — a return to the European designers she usually favors. The impact of these choices is stronger and goes beyond readings of “innocence” or “motherhood”; it undermines a message that her husband campaigned on, which was to stop exporting jobs and goods and instead support U.S. manufacturing. So perhaps the message here is that Mrs. Trump values shows of wealth via expensive European labels over supporting one of the administration’s greatest running points.

It’s speculation, but it still has worth. The fact that these analyses are met with such public outrage is symptomatic of a greater issue surrounding fashion; the sense that it and anything to do with it is considered superficial, unimportant. There’s a heightened sense of hostility towards the subject not seen at the same level as in the previous administration — it’s likely that many of the antagonists are unaware the subject was covered throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.

Many on the left call this practice “sexist,” arguing that the fashion of presidential men is never parsed. (This is untrue: Friedman has often analyzed the fashion of political men, but as noted before, there is less material to work with, so to speak.) Ultimately, this becomes a bigger issue of what role the First Lady should have. Those who find the practice of analyzing fashion sexist perhaps should instead question why these ladies are relegated to only having fashion as their main form of communication.

“Just because something appears trivial does not mean it is any less powerful as a means of persuasion and outreach,” Friedman wrote. “In some ways its triviality – the fact that everyone could talk about it, dissect it, imitate it – makes fashion the most potentially viral item in the subliminal political toolbox.”



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