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As insults go, making fun of someone’s fashion sense is tempting, low-hanging fruit. The jokes come fast, and they feel cutting and true because clothing reveals how we want others to see us. Fashion-related jabs that might seem cruel in everyday life are, however, broadly considered fair game in the political realm. Politicians often manipulate their style for optics, and besides, they’re running the country. It’s punching up.
This has been a banner year for fashion-moments-as-political-flashpoints, from President Trump’s taped-together necktie to Melania Trump’s Hurricane Harvey stilettos. People on both sides of a divided political landscape took their frustrations and fears and funneled them into an easy target.
Was it about looking for levity during a long, challenging year? Odd styling choices and clothing misfires can be funny, but they’re not always fun. They’re something to hold onto and own when everything else in politics feels overwhelming and out of your control. Dissecting and roundly mocking politicians’ clothing feels momentarily vindicating in a way that calling one’s state representatives might not.
To Trump’s critics, notable styling choices often served as evidence of the administration’s incompetence and inexperience, and as proof that the wealthy Trump family was desperately out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. Just yesterday, a former Clinton staffer called out Trump for wearing what appeared to be diamond cufflinks while discussing the Republican tax overhaul, a bill that favors the nation’s wealthiest individuals.
While some internet commenters congratulated Melania Trump on the $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana jacket she wore while visiting Italy in May, the garment’s price point — so inaccessible to the working-class Americans that Trump courted during his campaign — left others cold. Wealth disparities came up again in August when Louise Linton, the wife of treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, shamed an Instagram commenter for having less money than she does after posting a photo of herself descending a government plane wearing head-to-toe designer labels (which she had duly tagged, influencer-style).
When former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted in October for allegedly taking millions of dollars from the Ukranian government and laundered over $18 million, people were shocked to learn that he had spent $1.3 million of it on clothing. It wasn’t just the sum of money that people were talking about on social media, though. It was that his taste wasn’t even good.
As with Manafort, the dissonance of outward wealth and imperfect dressing was the basis for America’s fascination with Donald Trump’s taped necktie, which began last year and continued well into 2017. For some, it was both something to make fun of and a symbol of the Trump administration’s flaws (a GQ headline: “Trump’s Tie Is Held Together With Scotch Tape, Not Unlike Our Fragile Democracy”). But supporters felt that it showed Trump’s relatability, resourcefulness, and frugality — a mixed message, of course, when you throw Melania Trump’s Dolce & Gabbana gear into the mix.
In other moments, fashion gave Trump’s detractors the opportunity to paint his family as out-of-touch oligarchs. The night of the president’s original travel ban, Ivanka Trump came under fire for posting a photo of herself dressed for an event in a silver Carolina Herrera gown while thousands of people across the nation were protesting at airports. In August, Melania Trump received similar criticism for heading off to survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey wearing a pair of super-thin stilettos. “Heading off to Texas, she looked dressed to view a natural disaster from a distance, from on high, not up close,” wrote Robin Givhan in the Washington Post.
Jared Kushner won his share of insults after a photo emerged of him wearing a blue blazer and khakis with a flak jacket while visiting troops during his trip to Iraq in April. Figuring out what to wear under a bulky, tight flak jacket has been a challenge for many politicians, but that didn’t spare Kushner from immediate mockery. The goofiness of his preppy schoolboy outfit worn with a piece of military body armor stoked the view of Kushner, the son of a powerful New York real estate family, as a privileged and inexperienced surrogate for an unproven president. Likewise, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s too-big suits reinforced the image of him as bumbling, in over his head.
While much of the political fashion conversation centered on Trump and his team, it was a bipartisan affair. In October, Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson received threats after criticizing Trump for his insensitivity toward the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson. But conservatives also came after Wilson’s fashion choices, including the cowboy hats she’s known for wearing, and used it as evidence of her being a political lightweight, calling her a “buffoon” and a “clown in a cowboy hat.”
It’s obvious what they were trying to do: Casting fashion as a frivolous women’s concern is a way to delegitimize any woman who enjoys getting dressed up. Meanwhile, men at white supremacist rallies wear polo shirts in an effort to look appealing and normal and to give their beliefs an air of legitimacy.
The self-seriousness of the polos and button-downs worn at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, presented a striking contrast to the hot pink “pussyhats” that protesters wore to the Women’s March on Washington last January. Many of them homemade, the hats were loud and silly; the point was not to blend in, but to stand out as a crowd. The hats weren’t serious, but the people in them were.