Clothes-Minded

Categories: Immigrant Rights
06/28/2018
Tags:

I really don’t care, do u? These were the six words emblazoned across the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s green Zara jacket as she traveled to visit a Texas detention center where immigrant children were being held after being separated from their parents. Immediately, the First Lady’s outfit ignited a massive political firestorm. For, observers were equal parts shocked and outraged by the apathetic message Melania Trump appeared to be conveying as she went to witness the traumatizing consequences of the Trump Administration’s new zero-tolerance policy towards immigrant families crossing the border. Yet, when reached for comment, the First Lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, simply responded, “It’s a jacket. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to focus on her wardrobe.” But as with all things political, nothing can ever be taken at face value, and we have an obligation to examine the intersection between fashion and feminism.   

Yes, Ms. Grisham is correct in stating that Melania Trump’s jacket is a jacket. But it’s also a jacket that one of the most powerful women in America specifically chose to wear for a very specific political visit. She had more money and more access to different clothing selections than any American could ever dream of, yet, she selected a $39 off-the-rack jacket from Zara that had a clearly inflammatory message prominently displayed. So, if I choose to focus on the First Lady’s wardrobe selection, it’s only because when she selected it, she clearly wasn’t focused on the importance of her visit—or so her clothing told us. Because if the old adage, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” is true, then Melania Trump wasn’t dressing to reflect the ideal role of a First Lady (an advocate for all Americans), but rather how she and her husband have selfishly chosen to portray these sacred roles (advocates for nobody but themselves.)

Critiquing another woman’s wardrobe choice is a fairly foreign and sensitive concept to me. Judging women based on their clothing is an extremely gendered practice, and I, like most women, know how demoralizing it is to be judged based on your appearance instead of your actions. How a woman chooses to dress should never be used to justify another individual’s violent, inappropriate, or demeaning behavior towards her. And to ignore how society polices women’s bodies every day with dress codes, unsolicited advice, and superficial media coverage would be patently irresponsible.

“History has shown that during times of political turmoil, clothing can become a form of political expression in and of itself.”

However, it would also be ignorant and irresponsible if we, as women, failed to calculate the impact that our wardrobe can carry—especially a high-profile woman like Melania Trump. History has shown that during times of political turmoil, clothing can become a form of political expression in and of itself. During the American Revolution, in order to protest British taxation, many colonial women refused to buy imported cloth, and instead weaved their own homespun cloth. Women who wore dresses made of this rustic, but hearty material soon became easily identified as supporters of patriotism and independence. During the Women’s Suffrage Movement, suffragists purposefully adopted purple, gold, and white as their official colors—with purple representing “loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause,” gold for “the color of light and life” as well as “the torch that guide[d their] purpose,” and white as, “the emblem of purity, symbol[izing] the quality of [their] purpose.”

These colors soon became iconic, to the point where prominent female political figures often invoke the symbolism of the suffragette in white when striving to attain political milestones. Geraldine Ferraro wore all white when she became the first female vice presidential nominee in a major party, Shirley Chisholm wore all white when she became the first African-American congresswoman and later when she became the first African-American woman to run for a major party’s presidential nomination, and of course—who can forget Hillary Clinton’s signature white pantsuit that she wore the evening she became the first woman to receive a major party’s presidential nomination?

Yet, just as it’s true that the right clothing can forward a political agenda, the wrong clothing can equally undermine a political agenda. One of the greatest lessons that a female mentor taught me is that when you dress for something politically important, you need to make sure that your wardrobe is appropriate so that the clothes that you wear won’t distract from the content that you wish to share. Or worse, that the outfit you select contradicts with the message that you’re trying to convey. Melania Trump is certainly not the first First Lady who’s made this mistake. Mary Todd Lincoln was often criticized for wearing expensive gowns during the middle of the Civil War, and, in the most recent administration, Michelle Obama was criticized for wearing designer clothing while speaking about income inequality.

However, these indiscretions cannot even remotely equate to the complete apathy demonstrated by the current First Lady’s decision to wear her now-infamous cargo jacket. While political commentators were left to infer the meaning behind Mary Todd Lincoln and Michelle Obama’s questionable choices, there’s little room for interpretation when an outfit so clearly has the phrase “I really don’t care, do u?” written so conspicuously along the First Lady’s body. It doesn’t require much imagination to assume that if Melania Trump wore such a message across her back when visiting immigrant children separated from their parents, that she “really [doesn’t] care” about their political situation. And even if one were to be generous and trust Ms. Grisham’s word that the First Lady’s jacket was nothing more than “a jacket,” doesn’t the lack of care put into the details of the First Lady’s visit demonstrate an equal lack of care for the details surrounding immigration policy?

Still, regardless of whether or not we choose to believe the White House’s word that Melania Trump merely chose to wear “a jacket” during her visit, Ms. Grisham did say one thing that I think we can all clearly agree on—“I hope the media isn’t going to focus on her wardrobe.” Because ultimately it’s not what Melania Trump wore that ought to be the main source of outrage (although it’s certainly worth getting outraged over), but it’s the fact the entire Trump Administration consistently wears the attitude “I really don’t care, do u?” in their demeanor towards immigrants without having to put on any designer jackets. But guess what—I really care, do you?


Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.