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Michelle Obama Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Politics of Dressing the First Lady

Tommy Hilfiger thinks designers shouldn’t “become political about it.”

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In the comings and goings of the various reanimated ‘90s villains and thawed-out political off cuts shuttled through Trump Tower last week, it was easy to miss Tommy Hilfiger. Yet there he was, in his customary heavy frames and blue oxford shirt, flitting out of the gilded elevator bank among the increasingly familiar and exponentially more horrifying men (and they were mostly men) interviewing for a job running the government come January.

Hilfiger keeps a small office in Trump Tower, but no one has asked him why he still considers that prudent, as his company headquarters sits across town. Perhaps no one really noticed him, even though it was the closest a high-profile designer has come to Trump since the election. Two days later, the designer Sophie Theallet, who has dressed Michelle Obama throughout her tenure in the White House, posted an open letter stating that she would purposefully decline to do the same for the incoming First Lady, citing “the rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s campaign,” and urging her colleagues to consider acting in kind.

Theallet’s letter got plenty of attention but little direct comment from American designers and fashion industry nabobs. Despite being vocal in their support of Hillary Clinton, US fashion brands, facing a potentially retaliatory new administration, have become suddenly gun shy. That is, until November 21st, when Hilfiger, asked for his thoughts on the Theallet letter, elided nearly a half century of history and suggested people not “become political about it.”

First Lady to-be Melania Trump on Election Day.
First Lady to-be Melania Trump on Election Day.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Hilfiger and his wife, Dee Ocleppo, were attending the 20th annual Angel Ball, a cancer research fundraiser, at Cipriani Wall Street. When pressed with Theallet’s letter, which cited standing “against all discrimination and prejudice,” he responded with compliments of Melania’s looks, and, for good measure, Ivanka’s:

“I think Melania is a very beautiful woman and I think any designer should be proud to dress her,” Hilfiger said. “Ivanka is equally as beautiful and smart, although she wears her own clothes. I don’t think people should become political about it. Everyone was very happy to dress Michelle as well. I think they look great in the clothes. You’re not gonna get much more beautiful than Ivanka or Melania.”

Tommy Hilfiger with wife Dee Ocleppo at the Angel Ball
Tommy Hilfiger with wife Dee Ocleppo at the Angel Ball.
Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Beauty wasn’t exactly what Theallet was commenting on, and in any other week, his knee-jerk equivalence of “attractiveness” and “worthy of clothing,” in line though it may be with Donald Trump’s hierarchy of female value, would be fatuous enough. But this is the week in which much of the world is watching in bated terror, its mouth agape but no sounds escaping, and so Hilfiger’s advice that we leave politics out of a political upheaval rings like the kind of facile conclusion of someone wealthy enough to ride out the end of the world on his yacht: Oh, don’t bother mussing up the guest room, darling, the fascists aren’t staying long.

What Hilfiger doesn't realize or more likely doesn't care about is that dressing the First Lady is in fact an inherently political act and a tacit approval of an administration's policies, in this case, one which campaigned on bilious attacks on personal freedoms and vague intimations of how it would approach issues directly relevant to the fashion industry (suggesting that climate change is an elaborate hoax developed by the Chinese government, for example).

This is perhaps the least surprising position of the year. Hilfiger has never met a cultural flashpoint he wouldn't exploit for market share — from hip hop's surge in popularity in the ‘90s to Gigi Hadid's surge in popularity in 2016. Yet it’s hard to believe this is the official company position. Perhaps no one at Hilfiger HQ informed Tommy that people are burning their New Balances and uploading videos of the bubbling rubber; perhaps he missed the boycotts, since October, of retailers who merely stock Trump and Ivanka's brands; perhaps he couldn't crib from Ralph Lauren's answers in time, but the notion that he or anyone else might keep politics and fashion in tidy corners is insulting at best, and approaches a contemptible level of ignorance of fashion’s relationship with the First Lady’s wardrobe.

Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural ballgown
Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural ballgown.
Photo: PhotoQuest

The forensics of what the First Lady wears has been deeply scrutinized since at least the Cold War. The optics, supply chain, and carbon footprint of an ensemble are sectioned and anatomized in a surgical theater of public opinion. The choice of an outfit can buoy the career of a young designer, as Michelle Obama’s 2009 and 2013 selections did for Jason Wu, or influence an entire epoch of popular design, as Mamie Eisenhower's 1953 blush peau de soie Nettie Rosenstein design did for midcentury decor, compelling Americans to cast their kitchens and bathrooms in the soft hue of “First Lady Pink.” Inauguration gowns alone are considered such faithful refractions of the mood of the country that they enter into the annals of American history, donated to the Smithsonian after wear (the specific part of the country being refracted can be debated; on more than one state occasion, Pat Nixon wore a margarine yellow gown designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin in keeping, as Mrs. Nixon’s personal shopper Clara Treyz has described, with the Nixons’s essential middle-Americanness and resistance to looking “jet-setty or way out,” an idea that in 1969 apparently translated into Swarovski crystal-studded satin and a matching bolero jacket).

Jackie Kennedy’s aesthetic was so thoroughly tethered to the idea of modernity and the cusp of a post-war society that it refigured the role of the First Lady into iconography. The Fashion Institute of Technology's Valerie Steele describes Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural gown, which she designed in collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman's Ethel Frankau, as “the triumph of her own personal style.”

Kennedy was supremely aware of the weight her layered blouson chiffon carried. Her pink suit and pillbox hat is cauterized in the national consciousness, in part because it was calculated to within a stitch — it was an exact replica of a Chanel design, down to Chanel fabric — but made domestically to avoid criticism of favoring European houses.

Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s inaugural ball
Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s inaugural ball.
Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

That the semiotics of the First Lady’s clothing are interpreted on a level tantamount to foreign policy judgements should at this point not come as surprise. Michelle Obama is considered an egalitarian patron of the fashion world on all its planes: She’s worn established labels like Carolina Herrera and Naeem Khan, young designers like Wu, and mass market brands like J.Crew. She appeared on the cover of Vogue three times, including the current issue. Yet even she was not immune to criticism. When Mrs. Obama wore a red organza Alexander McQueen dress to the 2011 state dinner honoring the Chinese president Hu Jintao, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America chided the First Lady for not supporting the American garment industry.

Not supporting the garment industry! Imagine what will be said of Melania’s choices, someone whose role as First Lady will come as a result of a campaign that used the word “manufacturing” like a dog whistle while her husband refrained from reshoring the manufacturing of his own clothing lines.

The transition from Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated lawyer and writer and veteran of public sector work, to Melania Trump, an erstwhile model and purveyor of a defunct line of caviar-laced skincare of dubious science who lied under oath about receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture, is stark. For Tommy Hilfiger, the gulf is not so great; Melania is beautiful, and the republic can be proud of that.

In an election which demonstrated that gender equality and women’s rights remain a struggle, whoever finds themselves dressing the most visible woman in the country, one who assumes that mantle alongside a man whose back is turned firmly against the social progress of the last 50 years, will find a saddle they may not have anticipated.

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