On the Power of Sartorial Signs

This is an image published on the Twitter account of … let’s go with ‘the President of the United States’.


As any picture, it tells a story, yet precisely what this story is about is, as always, a matter of interpretation. An interpretation that in this case revolves around the knowledge and understanding of sartorial code and signifiers. To be able to read and interpret the latter provides a very different meaning of this image than an interpretation that misses code and signification.

An example of the latter reading is provided by Libby Torres of ‘The Daily Beast’. For her, the image expresses that ‘Kim Kardashian got played by Trump’, that her attempt to discuss one of the most egregious cases of mandatory sentences in the US justice system simply turned into a photo-op for ‘the President of the United States’. Ms Kardashian-West’s purpose for the visit to the White House was to ask for a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time non-violent drug offender serving a life sentence. A worthy cause, if ever there was one.

For Torres, the meeting becomes a ‘sly publicity stunt’ for ‘the President of the United States’, ‘in the end she was nothing more than a prop in Trump’s ongoing efforts to get A-list celebrities to endorse him’. Most of the media reported on the meeting with similar disdain, frequently playing on Ms Kardashian-West’s first name and its similarity to the last name of the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sometimes clever, more often sexist and dumb, as it was to be expected from the relevant media.

Let’s have another, closer, and more careful look at the picture and what Ms Kardashian-West is wearing in the photo. It requires a bit of enlargement and some knowledge of fashion houses, but what becomes visible is part of the brand name ‘VETEMENTS’ stitched across her crotch, just above the top of the desk.



What does this brand name signify? As Morwenna Ferrier explains in The Guardian,

Vetements is a hip fashion collective, overseen by Demna Gvasalia, a Georgian designer who is well known within the industry for creating meme-friendly clothes at surprisingly high prices, heavily imbued with irony.

And for VOGUE, ‘Part of the genius of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements is its appropriation and refinement of mass culture into tongue-in-cheek garments’.

So Vetements is for all intent and purpose a fashion house the products of which play with and undermine the hierarchy between high and low culture. It thereby denies any recognition of authorities that depends on such hierarchy – among them, the authority of ‘the President of the United States’, who himself has done much to undermine the authority of the office he holds.

For Ferrier, therefore, wearing Vetements becomes a moment of ironic resistance, a gesture that subtly and sublimely denies ‘the President of the United States’ what he seeks to gain from this photo op. ‘Once you’ve seen [the words across her trousers], the joke lands squarely on Trump – it is, arguably, the sartorial equivalent of doing bunny ears behind his head’.

The point here is not to settle the question which interpretation is correct or more plausible. Rather, I would like to point out that proficiency in sartorial code – on the part of those producing the relevant signifiers as well as on the part of those expected to competently read them – would expand our space for political action. And perhaps we would acknowledge the possibility that in this image, the hierarchy of cultural competence is reversed, and that the ‘gleeful, cunning grin’ betrays nothing but ignorance of its wearer. In Ferrier’s words, ‘Only Kardashian-West could use a meeting at the White House to trump Trump. And judging by his face, he had no idea what was going on next to him’.


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