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.
What Mrs Trump offers here is clearly an exceedingly mobile signifier. Public and published responses suggest that ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ might refer to
- The detained children themselves
- The ‘Fake News Media’, as suggested by her husband
- Her husband himself
- The public obsessing about her wardrobe choices
As Vanessa Friedman pointed out, the latter choice would make wearing the jacket ‘as if to give direct proof to the words on her back. That would be kind of meta’. Given my own philosophical inclinations, I quite like this interpretation.
But the most powerful interpretation was arguably offered by the commentators that mobilised the ‘Marie-Antoinette’ meme. The name ‘Marie-Antoinette’ stands as a powerful reference for female political actors whose conduct and fashion choices are considered indicative of the moral and ethical depravity of the regimes they represent.
To be sure, it wasn’t the sartorial choice as such – a $30 jacket from the fast fashion chain Zara, a rather dramatic departure from Mrs Trump’s usually high fashion choices – but rather the sentiment expressed by graffiti on is back. It taps into the callousness of Marie-Antoinette as allegedly expressed in her famous line ‘Let them eat cake’. (And no, she most likely did not say that).
But it does connect with the critical reviews of Mrs Trump’s choice of stiletto heels for the trip to Texas after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the state, or the $1380 Balmain shirt she wore for a White House Kitchen Garden event.
Moreover, the first reference to Marie-Antoinette actually predates the trip to Texas; on 20 June 2018, Vanity Fair published an article entitled ‘Melania Trump goes full Marie-Antoinette’ in which it criticised the inactivity of the First Lady with regard to the detained children. A few days later Mrs Trump’s choice of wardrobe only seemed to confirm that criticism.
The jacket and the resulting social and traditional media storm seem to define a watershed in the public opinion about the First Lady. While she previously enjoyed some hesitant approval and sympathy even among those part of the public that rejects her husband’s policies, #jacketgate seems to have coalesced that part of public opinion and now designates her as a complicit representative of the Trump presidency. And the designation as ‘Marie-Antoinette’ reinforces that the criticism of this presidency is not about policy choices, but about the moral and ethical depravity of the Trump administration. Remarkably, the sartorial choices of the First Lady serve as a very effective foil for this negative acclamation or ‘accusation’.
Power cannot do without glory. Indeed, as Giorgio Agamben in his The Kingdom and the Glory (2011) argues, far from being a relic of the pre-modern past, ceremonial and acclamatory aspects (including sartorial codes) that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of modern Western power. We seem to think that dress codes and sartorial splendour only mattered to the likes of Louis XIV or Marie-Antoinette as a means to legitimise their divinely ordained rule. Hidden in plain sight is the phenomenon that we ‘secularised’ citizens still clamour for, and obsess about, these vestiges. Political scientists interested in the question of legitimacy of political power should not leave this issue to the exclusive purview of fashionistas.