The End of Fashion Diplomacy?

Well, that went fast. Having just formulated a sophisticated theory of fashion diplomacy, I am now told that it is already over. Melania Trump’s sartorial performance accompanying her husband on his, err, whirlwind trip through Europe has garnered rather puzzled responses from the fashionistas crowd. My two favourite writers significantly disagree on the reasons for this though. For Robin Givhan, there are some messages discernible: a Calvin Klein dress for a NATO event in Brussels (an American brand guided by a Belgian fashion director, Raf Simons)


(Copyright White House, public domain)

and for the UK a dress by the London-based designer Roland Mouret, a brand now favoured by the Duchess of Sussex, formerly known as Megan Markle.

London Pic

(Copyright White House, public domain)

This is all nice and well, but her interpretations feel a bit forced, and most so when a rather uninspired cocktail dress by the Lebanese designer Elie Saab ‘could well serve as a reminder of the global nature of fashion, creativity and style’. Virtually any dress can do that today.What makes Givhan’s argument more interesting is her caustic judgement that whatever Ms Trump is trying to express via her vestiary choices does not matter anymore. After the bizarre fashion faux-pas with the ‘I Don’t Really Care. Do U?’ jacket some while ago, that message not overrides and erases any other one. In Givhan’s words,

Can there be fashion diplomacy after detonating the nuclear option? After the crude fashion equivalent of throwing up the middle finger?

It is an intriguing argument, but it seems to suggest that somehow one garment, one event, can cancel the meaning production of subsequent garments at different events. From a semiotic point of view, I would maintain that the intentions of the author are much less relevant than the text itself. So while we will never know why Ms Trump wore that peculiar jacket, it nonetheless led to a proliferation of interpretations and meanings which entered the political discourse and became rather productive in terms of producing counter-slogans and ironic memes. Similarly, Ms Trump does not control the meaning of her dress choices in Europe, not even negatively. In other words, she cannot cancel or contain the meaning of what Barthes called ‘the written garment’, i.e., the texts produced about the dresses she wears. The dresses spoke ‘for themselves’, according to the code applied by different fashion observers and writers (More on this in a hopefully soon forthcoming chapter on Reading the Signs of Fashion).

That the search for meaning in Ms Trump’s recent sartorial choices might nonetheless be futile in terms of fashion diplomacy is argued by Vanessa Friedman. For her, Ms Trump’s ‘wardrobe goes mute’. ‘The clothes were elegant, but bland. They were notable largely for what they were not’. Rather than conjuring up some meaning in her dress code in order to declare its inefficacy, Friedman attributes the underwhelming sartorial performance to Ms Trump’s conscious, yet for her mysterious, decisions. In her words,

Yet it was for the Texas trip that Mrs. Trump chose a garment that didn’t just speak louder than words, but involved actual words, and in Europe that she has reduced her wardrobe to an almost imperceptible whisper. It’s a head-scratching inversion, and yet more evidence that while her husband may treat his job like a reality TV series, Mrs. Trump has made hers into a mystery. This is just the latest episode.

It is easy enough to agree with the ‘reality TV’ argument above. I actually think there is more to it than the offhand comments usually made in this context. But this latest episode of The Apprentice President still invites some further analysis. From a political science perspective, what these interpretations suggest is a growing sentiment that Ms Trump has privatised her role as First Lady and no longer supplements (her husband’s) power with glory. Both Givhan and Friedman agree that this form of symbolic supplement has disappeared. And perhaps then that was the meaning of ‘I Don’t Really Care’: her new understanding of her role in the White House. By denying her husband the symbolic glory that First Ladies are expected to provide on state visits and state diners, she sartorially and symbolically accentuates the misery of the Trump administration, its crude fascination with material power, its obsession with creating conflicts and the absence of any diplomatic courtesy as is usually expected amongst allies and sovereign equals. Whether this really registers with the President is hard to know, though.

So ultimately, there still is a fashion diplomacy in operation here, even if held in abeyance. Sartorial code always produces a message, even via an absence of style. Now that she has made that statement, it remains to be seen where Ms Trump is taking her message from here. As for Fashion Diplomacy, we should be allowed to hope that it is only suspended.

Dress to Empress (pun alert!)

With the Football World Cup behind us (and I admit I watched most of the games), it’s time again for some fashion-related reflexions. With regard to the Cup, one thing that I found interesting from a sartorial point of view was the insignias on the teams’ uniforms to indicate their nationalities. Many teams used the badge of their respective national football associations, but a few seemed to prefer more politically charged symbols. One that caught my attention (its size made it rather hard to miss) was the Russian insignia which consisted solely of the Russian Imperial double eagle. No mentioning of the Russian Football Association at all.


The Association itself also includes a rather large double eagle in its emblem, perched on top of a football in the colours of the Russian Federation, which is framed below bythe associations Russian name:Российский Футбольный Cоюз.

There are some interesting politically charged semiotics in play here. The team clearly represents more than its national federation; instead, it plays for a particular, ‘imperial’ notion of Russia, as promulgated and supported by the Putin regime. The imperial double eagle is also displayed on the Presidential Standard and on the Flag of the Russian Armed Forces. Its use in the emblem of the Russian сборнаяat the World Cup therefore symbolically links the team with the militarized and fairly aggressive nationalist project of the Russian President.

How far this transfer of official symbols of the Russia state has gone can perhaps be appreciated when looking at the social media images posted by Alina Kabayeva after a TV appearance in which she opened a children’s festival. Ms Kabayeva, a former Olympic athlete, is rumoured to be President Putin’s paramour.



The conflation of symbols of state authority (and authoritarian rule) and fashion is indeed stunning here, albeit not in a very flattering way. I leave it to the gentle reader to decide whether this dress warrants attention beyond its nationalistic tackiness. But this sartorial strategy, i.e., to transfer state symbols into day-to-day life also echoes earlier developments in Russia. As I wrote in the Introduction of The International Politics of Fashion,

in the wake of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula (which itself was interesting for its use of ‘little green man’, i.e., combatants wearing unmarked green ‘uniforms’), the Russian Ministry of Defence teamed up with Leonid Alexeev, a Russian fashion designer, to create a new clothing line called “Army of Russia” which is ‘inspired by the “Crimean spring”’ (Noack 2015). In the words of the designer, ‘I do not sew army uniforms, but I can help make the army attractive to people. This is my personal form of patriotism’. And Vladimir Pavlov, the general director of the military supply shop voentorg, reveals the defence ministry’s motivation behind this fashion strategy, stating that the collection is designed for people ‘leading an active lifestyle and sharing military values — patriotism, camaraderie and mobility’ (Beard 2015).

It would be interesting to see if other authoritarian regimes have used sartorial strategies like these to normalise and aestheticise their rule. That is to say, not be creating national uniforms, but rather by investing day-to-day dress codes (including sports uniforms) with the emblems of state power. But perhaps it would be equally interesting to investigate what Michael Billig called some time ago ‘Banal Nationalism‘ in Western societies too, where baseball caps, T-Shirt and other sartorial items constantly produce and reproduce a symbolic and ambiguous discourse on national identity. Nationalism, he writes, ‘must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times’. And placing a Union Jack or a Stars and Stripes (or, more noxiously, a Stars and Bars) onto clothes seems in a way a similar move to the one in contemporary sartorial Russia. Perhaps the slightly more ostentatious use of state symbols in Russia points to a less banal nationalism, though?