The Death of Fashion Diplomacy


So the Trump state visit to the United Kingdom, with its Irish interlude and European D-Day sojourn, full of carefully choreographed, performative posturing, has come to an end.

We know only some details of what was discussed — Brexit! Trade! Tiffany brooches! — but visual souvenirs of the Trumps’ attire abound on the digisphere. In the absence of further information about what went on behind closed doors, we are left to mine the formal photo ops for clues; to parse the hats, formal wear and coats.

After all, this is a White House that prizes pageantry and theater, and embraces them as strategic tools — costume included. The trip was predicated on symbolism, and in such context, all public choices have import. Yet we still can’t agree on what it all meant.

Just as the endless stream of name-calling and off-the-cuff remarks from the president has served to numb us to their content, so too has the elaborate stream of obfuscating outfits. Each one opened itself to multiple interpretations from critics and armchair observers around the world, tempting division and dissent through speculation.

For example: The first lady must have been paying homage to her host country when she wore a Gucci dress covered in London landmarks — Big Ben, double-decker bus and all — to board the plane from D.C. (or so claimed Breitbart). But the Hollywood Reporter begged to differ: No, by wearing that dress she was trolling her husband, because Gucci had just held a show that argued emphatically for abortion rights.

Or maybe Mrs. Trump was being diplomatic by arriving and departing in the British heritage brand Burberry (a pussy-bow-print blouse splashed with the word “society” on the way in, and a trench coat as she left). Or no, she was ignoring all that by wearing the French brand Dior to the formal state dinner.

Perhaps she represented the United States by wearing a white coat from The Row to the British D-Day ceremony. Whoops, maybe not, because the day before she wore a belted-up trench dress from another European brand, Celine. (Then again, it was old Celine, from the Phoebe Philo years, so it could have been a feminist gesture.)

Maybe the choice was part of the trade war posturing. Whatever!

So it was expensive. Whatever!

So it wasn’t American or British or consistently diplomatic. Whatever.

She looked good, if a little like she had just stepped off a film set — buttoned-up, contained and opaque as usual.

What really got people worked up in regards to the Trumps’ wardrobe was the president’s white-tie faux pas: a too-long vest under his tailcoat at the state dinner. Why that sort of excess should have been a surprise is unclear. As his penchant for oversize ties and suits (and crowds) shows, the president clearly believes in exaggeration of all kinds. And given his absolute surety that his way is the right way and the current let-Trump-be-Trump attitude of his White House, who would tell him otherwise? Not the secretary of treasury (and appropriately vested) Steven Mnuchin.

It’s gotten so confusing that in London, when her stepdaughter Ivanka wore a fussy white peplum jacket and pleated skirt by Alessandra Rich on the first day — going so far as to pop on a fascinator à la Ascot — and then opted for Carolina Herrera for the state dinner, followed by Burberry polka dots to meet with Theresa May, a classic British-American-British nod to the special relationship, practically no one noticed.

Now it seems almost quaint, the belief that a first lady should use her wardrobe to advance a recognizable, if subtle, domestic or diplomatic point. Such a charming, old-fashioned relic of a different time. Like when we also expected our leaders to believe when they represent the nation, they represent all people.

And yet that doesn’t mean there is no agenda involved. It’s just not the one we are used to.

In their own specific way, the Trumps actually are doing what their forbearers did: using their clothing to reflect their approach to governance. It’s just that their approach seems to rely on the startling, the eye-catching and the politically incorrect. In dress, it is increasingly apparent, as it is on Twitter.



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