Even those without any interest in fashion probably know what Jackie Kennedy’s infamous Chanel suit looked like or remember Michelle Obama’s Versace dress. It’s no surprise that as one of the most famous and most photographed women on the planet, the first lady’s outfit will be heavily scrutinized.
However, dressing a first lady is a completely different ballgame than dressing a celebrity is. Most women who walk the red carpet just need to look good, but a first lady’s clothes are everything from a visual representation of the administration’s values to an endorsement of American-made products.
Kennedy had a personal designer who helped her mix European and American styles to create her signature, frequently copied look on campaigns and public appearances. Clothes were an integral part of the Kennedys’ youthful and cosmopolitan image.
Obama, during her time as the first lady, mixed J. Crew with couture to telegraph the promise her husband had made in his campaign — youthful, relatable change was here, and followers could buy these affordable clothes for themselves. Thom Browne, when explaining the real-life effects of such a seemingly trivial detail, such as a J. Crew belt, said, “She realized very early on that everything she did had ramifications.”
This is all a long-winded way of saying that there’s a clear precedent for fashion being an important visual tool when it comes to politics and world affairs. Wearing an American designer obviously sends a different message than does wearing something made in Europe, and wearing a modern silhouette is different from something more conservative.
So when the Trump administration says that a jacket is just a jacket, it’s fair to say that a lie is just a lie. Melania Trump’s communication director was technically right when she said there wasn’t a “hidden message” — you couldn’t really call “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” subtle.
Journalist Liz Plank presented a theory in Teen Vogue that Trump’s ridiculously tone-deaf clothing choices are an effective way for the Trump administration to bait the press. It’s a trap to get news outlets to focus on clothes rather than issues, and it fuels the ever-popular “fake news” narrative.
It’s happened before, too. Remember when she wore stilettos to visit Hurricane Harvey victims?
The response, every time, has been the same criticism of the image-obsessed media that is ready to use every tiny excuse to indict the Trump administration while ignoring the bigger issues. When people are understandably outraged over stilettos in a flood zone, they’re “obsessed.” When the media reports on the first lady’s jacket, it is ignoring bigger issues in favor of petty criticism.
Donald Trump’s administration understands the implication behind wearing certain things to certain places and purposefully does the most offensive thing possible in order to outrage news outlets. When journalists inevitably take the bait, they are criticized for covering silly issues such as fashion instead of actual, hard-hitting stories.
There aren’t a lot of times when people see fashion as a powerful tool of political discourse. The first lady’s clothes, and the spotlight that falls on what she’s wearing, are the exception.
The official term is “fashion diplomacy” — a factor that’s as serious as any when it comes to nonverbal communication. It’s an established tradition that just by wearing certain things in public, the first lady can use her platform to support up-and-coming designers and American art.
Instead of following the example set by other first ladies and respecting the importance of clothing in politics, Melania Trump uses fashion as a throwaway distraction. Where fashion could be viewed an important and valuable platform, the first lady dismisses it as superficial and inconsequential.