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.

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