As the attentive reader of my chapter in The Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World will remember, I concluded by stating that fashion as a symbolic form of modern sovereignty still operates in the shadow of Marie-Antoinette. Masculinised power requires feminised glory, usually provided by First Ladies. Their ‘fashion diplomacy’ provides focal points for acclamation and, when it fails, accusation, respectively supporting or diminishing the legitimacy of the respective administration.
The recent debate about Melanie Trump’s peculiar wardrobe choice for her trip to a children detention centre in Texas illustrates this point in a powerful fashion. Both traditional and social media went into overdrive trying to divine what the ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ graffiti on the back of her Zara jacket could possibly mean. Given the purpose of the trip – to demonstrate some compassion for children taken away from their parents as part of an inhumane ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards allegedly ‘illegal immigrants’ – the statement understandably led to some cognitive dissonance for many journalists, pundits, social media writers and fashionistas. The case is in a sense even more interesting than Michelle Obama’s fashion faux-pas in August 2009 when images of Mrs Obama emerged during a vacation that showed her descending from Air Force One wearing shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. As Robin Givhan reminded her, ‘ultimately, the first lady can’t be — nor should she be — just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. That event was clearly a sartorial blunder, acknowledged as such by Mrs Obama later on BET. Mrs Trump’s choice on the other hand seems to be more conscious and purposeful – but what purpose, what message precisely are we to read here? The most disingenuous answer was offered by her spokesperson: ‘It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message’. This is of course true, as many noted, there is nothing ‘hidden’ about the message scrawled across the back of the jacket. Moreover, other circumstantial evidence suggests that the First Lady deployed her sartorial message with some level of intention: wearing the jacket on a humid and warm day and allowing photographers onto the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews where she took off and landed suggested to a number of observers that the dissemination of this message was not an accident.