Fashion Diplomacy Returns to Washington, DC

Being the only scholar to have developed a full theory of Fashion Diplomacy in The International Politics of Fashion (see right), I would be remiss not to write an entry about the recent state dinner, Melania Trump and the return of fashion diplomacy to the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

The basic argument in my chapter on Marie-Antoinette and Michelle Obama states that since the former’s reign, it is the task of the ‘queen’ or ‘first lady’ to provide splendour and glory for sovereign power, and that Ms Obama’s fashion diplomacy gave a sartorial expression to the particular ‘imperial sovereignty’ (a concept I borrow with due apologies from Hardt and Negri) of the USA. Ms Obama had a particular predilection for wearing gowns at state dinners that were created by ‘hyphenated American’ designers, i.e., designers born in the country honoured at the dinner, but living and working in the USA to realise their full creative potential. If I may quote myself: ‘the creativity and talent of foreign national is rightfully appropriated by the USA, as this move is the condition under which [their] potential can be fulfilled in a globalized (fashion) world’. The culture, aesthetics and traditions of the designers’ countries of origin therefore become but reservoirs or portfolios to be fully realised by a New York-based fashion industry that turns their designs into globally recognisable products. This, my argument goes, is a sartorial expression of the character of US sovereignty that is inclusive and expansive rather than exclusive and limiting. ‘Wearing gowns by other country-American designers symbolizes and authenticates the inclusion and absorption of their spaces of origin into the globalizing American space’.

The one significant exception to this fashion policy was the red silk organza dress by the fashion house of Alexander McQueen that Ms Obama wore for the Chinese state dinner in January 2011. China, this fashion diplomacy suggested, cannot be absorbed by the US; it defines its own increasingly significant role in the global fashion industry as well as in global politics.

Barack_and_Michelle_Obama_welcome_President_Hu_Jintao_of_China,_2011Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

I mention this here because in a sense, Melania Trump’s fashion choice for the recent state dinner honouring France (wearing ‘a Chanel haute couture gown with black Chantilly lace, … hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystals and sequins’) repeated this move: France will not be absorbed into US space; culturally at least, France remains a power to be recognised and honoured.

State_Dinner_-_The_Official_State_Visit_of_France_(26832278157) Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

There is an also an interesting difference here: Ms Obama wore the gown of an English designer for a Chinese state dinner, emphasising the globalisation of the fashion industry, while Ms Trump articulated a more ‘direct’ signifier: Chanel as an expression of French haute couture. Perhaps it symbolised the ‘special relationship’ between France and the USA that the current president mentioned during the state visit. I am not quite sure how to interpret that, any suggestions are welcome.

And then there was of course The Hat.

Arrival_Ceremony_-_The_Official_State_Visit_of_France_(41699693771) Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has been made of it by the crowd of fashion writers, hungry for a rebirth of White House sartorial spectacle ever since Michelle Obama left the White House. It was ‘a diva crown. A grand gesture of independence. A church hat. The Lord is my shepherd. Deliver us from evil. Amen’.

What is interesting in the context of my theory of fashion diplomacy is that the hat was commissioned by Hervé Pierre, the French-American designer of her inauguration gown. Here, then, Ms Trump repeats Ms Obama’s fashion diplomacy, if in a more limited fashion: the pencil skirt and jacket were designed by one of the most recognisable American designers, Michael Kors.

But back to The Hat… Channelling Beyoncé? Or Michelle Obama via Beyoncé? Or perhaps it reflected the way a former model deals with and processes her current position as First Lady. Writes Givhan,

the first lady sometimes appears to be dressing for a fashion-shoot version of the event — a kind of heightened reality of an already rather surreal circumstance. But there is also the sense that she is stubbornly and confidently dressing up and refusing to relax into today’s accepted decorum.

But then there is the colour of The Hat and the jacket and pencil skirt: a bright white. This, perhaps is the most dramatic statement, whether intentional or not: Ms Trump’s desire to present herself as pure and untainted by the ‘swamp’ her husband and current president is creating. In Vanessa Friedman’s words,

she has something of a history of using white suits to send what seem like fairly pointed messages; see her decision to wear white — associated with women’s rights in the form of the suffragist movement, as well as Hillary Clinton — to her husband’s first State of the Union address, which happened to be her first high-profile appearance with him after the Stormy Daniels scandal broke.

So the personal becomes the political, delivering a sartorial condemnation of inappropriate conduct that indeed, as suggested above, has religious undertones. And this of course adds yet another layer to the fascinating topic of ‘fashion diplomacy’.

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