Fashion Diplomacy: First wives and Fashion Statements

By Amiya Kumar

Fashion is a mode of expression that represents and renders a distinction in one’s rank. It exhibits class hierarchies and power structures. It is appraised, studied and observed keeping Euro-centric, hetero-normative and top-down approaches in mind. Styles separate from these are perceived as the ‘exotic other’. The others always dress in relation to the superior authority. For instance, female leaders wearing suits. It can be observed that while this is seen as a symbol of progressiveness, it is merely the feminine version of a masculine piece of clothing that is deemed professional. Is there an appropriate way of dressing for a leader? Do leaders’ sartorial choices have implications for the image of their nation? Is it trivial to comment on what they wear?

Is politics in fashion or is fashion political? 

In contemporary times, fashion has become a means of establishing new social identities. However, this does not detract from the fact that it typifies power hierarchies. Merle Patchett and Nina Williams throw light on Braudel, Ling, Lorusso, and Reinach’s view that posit that fashion puts privileged white males, who have set the geographic as well as academic standards on a pedestal. These males view fashion as flippant and feminine and classify it as under the marker of ‘low politics’. Conventionally, it is believed that politicising fashion is a specious matter as it takes away from serious concerns and high politics. 

In reality, fashion is one of the most pervading art forms that is actively used by world leaders to advocate their beliefs and allure the public. Fashion is alluring as it can be perceived, scrutinised and even mimicked. The concept of mimicry is nested in hierarchies of power as it involves a dual articulation. The duality exists between the one being mimicked and the one mimicking, the latter of whom seeks similarity with the one they are mimicking. Historically, American and European modes of fashion have been impersonated. On the other hand, any style that was not European and American was neglected and marginalised. The failure to observe non-western styles and their placement on the peripheries of history is a testament to the “oriental bias” that exists in the fashion industry.

In the past, people believed that fashion originated from Europe as a consequence of the emergence of capitalism, globalisation and modernisation. It became a symbol of elitism and was even accommodated in museums. On the other hand, non-western dresses found themselves in the indigenous and primitive sections of these museums. Thus, fashion demonstrated the West as superior to other nations. There was a noticeable difference in the dress of the coloniser and the colonised, enabling us to deduce that one’s style is a means of ‘othering’ both gender and ethnographies.

Comparative Analysis 

After establishing that fashion is indeed political, one can analyse how sovereignty is aestheticised through the sartorial choices made by first wives. While Melania Trump was condemned for cultural appropriation, Michelle Obama was applauded for cultural appreciation. 

It is the political role of First Ladies to provide the sartorial glory to the masculinized power of the modern sovereign. Borris Johnson has been spotted in a bandana and joggers at multiple occasions, however, he has not been subjected to the same level of criticism that first wives face for diminishing sovereignty by being casual. All wardrobe choices made by first wives, be it to events, or  even in their everyday lives, are critically examined..They are constantly burdened by aesthetic concerns and their style becomes an instrument to convey their beliefs and intentions.

Melania Trump’s outfits have stirred as much controversy as her husband’s speeches and statements. Her choice to wear a pith helmet during her trip to David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi to feed baby elephants was globally deplored by media houses and citizens. Being clothed in an archaic weapon of oppression and emblem of colonial rule, in a nation that was once colonised, looked like a marker of her expressing her status. A pith hat is synonymous to colonial oppression and an indicator of discrimination and stereotypes. It was worn by European militaries in their colonies to exert power and showcase their superiority. Many speculated that the dress was inspired by ostensible notions people hold of Africa that are constructed through the media and literature one consumes. 

In fact, a lot of people commented on how she fulfilled all the typical stereotypes associated with Africa: by wearing a pith helmet, visiting orphans and feeding elephants. These three aspects are cornerstones of the misrepresented and inaccurate image of Africa. After this faux pas, she continued to make another one by dressing like Belloq – a fictional character who collaborated with the Nazis in Indiana Jones.

Another example of insensitivity portrayed by her is the Zara jacket she sported that read “I really don’t care, do u?” while meeting young migrant children at the US-Mexico border in the course of the family separation crisis. Her public relations team put out a statement stating that it was just a jacket to restore her reputation.

Out of all the outfits first wives clothe themselves in, most attention is given to their sartorial choices at state dinners. They are tools to pay homage to guest or host nations and also demonstrate one’s own diversity. The public perceives each aspect of the state dinners as laden with meaning. Melania Trump’s choice of dress for the state dinner with Xi Jingping and his wife was no such exception. She wore a cheongsam made by Gucci. First lady, Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices were analysed at the same level as well. There was always heavy anticipation about her wardrobe for state dinners. Prior to the dinner with President Hu Jintao, people assumed Michelle would wear a dress made by a Chinese-American designer such as Vera Wang or Jason Wu, as she had incorporated symbols of other leaders’ cultures in previous dinners. Much to everyone’s surprise, Michelle Obama graced the dinner in a red Alexander McQueen gown and the only thing paying respect to China was the colour red that is a symbol of the Chinese nation. This assumption was not a mere speculation but based on her past styles of dressing for such events. Obama had worn dresses made by designers that were associated with the guest nations for four of these events, as exemplified by the  Naeem Khan dress she wore when meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The choice of picking a designer of the same descent as the guest portrays the artistry and enterprise of individuals who have been welcomed to the United States guests nation. It indicates how the United States has made efforts to integrate and assimilate them into their globalised nation.

Most of her outfits have not been drabbed or given negative connotations, however, when she climbed down the Air Force One in shorts, it generated velitation. The first lady was on vacation, hence her choice of cotton flare shorts seemed only natural in relation to the activities she was going to engage in and the weather. However, the media and public argued that it was an irresponsible decision, especially to wear it when coming out of the Air Force One, where the whole world spectates and scrutinises due to the large cameras lined up outside the aircraft. They believed that it was her aesthetic obligation and responsibility to dress appropriately for all the personnel waiting for her in uniform. Despite this instance, Michelle Obama has maintained her image as someone with an impeccable fashion taste.

Michelle’s dresses that were crafted by “hyphenated identities” expressed the culmination of two heritages. They were representative of the transnational networks built by the two nations and their strong relations. She not only respected the country with her choice of attire, but also demonstrated that their nation had a place in the United States of America. The gowns gave the national leaders the hint that America was promoting inclusivity, appreciating the work of their citizens and it was in their best intention to sustain these relations. Andreas Behnke argues that this hyphenated identity is, in fact, not a combination of two identities, but a new identity in itself. An identity that embodies both traditions and cultures. Her dress reflected the government’s approach and correspondence to these nations. Barack Obama had declared that India’s relations with the United States as one of the defining partnerships of the 21 st century, and Michelle’s choice of wearing Naeem Khan substantiated this statement. This pattern makes her decision to wear a non-hyphenated designer during the China state dinner even more intriguing. While she honoured the nation by wearing red, her gown demonstrated that China was disregarded and excluded from their globalised world. The president had always cooperated with them, but it was not a hidden fact that he viewed them as competition and her dress was again representative of the same. 

On the other hand, while Melania went above and beyond to integrate Chinese culture into her outfit by wearing their traditional attire, she was reprimanded for culturally appropriating their dress. The reason for this was her choice of designer: Gucci, a fashion house that has been accused for misrepresenting cultures and commodification. Since Michelle used designers that descended from those nations, her efforts to absorb other cultures was seen as a means of appreciating them. Melania’s style is more hotly debated due to a larger issue – her lack of communication. In comparison to Michelle who made seventy two speeches in her first year, Melania only made eight. Her silent nature gives people more incentive to find meaning in her clothes and gestures. Since she was not vocal about her views on Trump’s radical policies, her clothes were used to draw inferences about her stance. Therefore, wearing a pith helmet in Africa was not viewed as a genuine mistake. President Trump had referred to African countries as shit holes and his comment was detrimental to the association Clinton and Bush had built with the African continent. Melania’s trip to Africa may have been an attempt to decontaminate the upheaval caused by her husband’s statements. Unfortunately, it only added to the damage and heightened the issues caused by him. Even if Melania is given the benefit of the doubt and her outfit was truly misconstrued, her other outfits have also caused a lot of misunderstandings. Her Zara jacket is a testament to the fact that she has made similar blunders more than once. It points towards a pattern rather than a fallacy. Hadley Freeman posits that Melania’s attire may have been a ploy to take away from the mishaps that took place during Trump’s governance. She believed that the Zara jacket was used as a diversion from the Russia probe and attack on welfare schemes.

Conclusion 

One can discern the colonial undertones in western fashion and how visual cues and optics exert influence on politics and are taken into consideration when first wives pick their clothes. It is time we start blurring the differences between high and low politics because as has been established, low politics is essential in understanding the social and even economic affairs of people in power.

Amiya Kumar is a Political Science major and International Relations minor at Ashoka University. She is interested in South Asian Studies, International Security and state surveillance.

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