Each week, RCP’s “Politics Is Everything” podcast examines how politics in the era of Donald Trump is impacting an industry or issue. This week’s episode, No. 5, spotlights the fashion industry.
When Melania Trump stepped out onto the world stage last week for the first time as first lady, all eyes were on the fashion.
The fuchsia caped dress in Riyadh, the black lace veil at the Vatican, the belted coatdress in Brussels. And, of course, the floral coat in Sicily. The last ensemble drew additional headlines as it retailed for a cool $51,000 — equivalent to the U.S. median household income and a sharp contrast to her husband’s “America First” campaign and working-class coalition.
Yet Melania Trump’s decision to wear the coat was also an exercise in fashion diplomacy, a nod to Italian design house Dolce & Gabbana. The New York Post’s Page Six described Mrs. Trump’s foreign fashion debut as “revenge” on U.S. designers who had refused to dress her as a protest against her husband’s politics and rhetoric.
Politics and fashion have long intertwined, most notably expressed in first ladies’ sartorial choices. Jackie Kennedy was considered a fashion icon. Michelle Obama was known for catapulting the careers of lesser-known American designers. The gowns and accessories worn by first ladies dating back to Martha Washington are enshrined at the Smithsonian and are therefore an official part of history.
But in the Trump era, politics and fashion are mixing in new ways.
After Donald Trump’s election, top fashion designers made a point to say they would not offer to dress the first lady — despite the fact that Melania Trump is a former model. Stefano Gabbana of Dolce & Gabbana defied many in the industry by posting a photo praising Mrs. Trump for wearing a dress by the Italian label to a New Year’s Eve party this year.
While the fashion industry often intersects with politics in the form of cultural expression or policy related to labor and trade, the relationship with the present White House has become tense.
“Particularly for the American design industry, the connection to politics has really been about dressing a first lady and hoping that an administration would be supportive of particular issues important to the fashion and garment industry. That has never been something that has been fraught before. And it is with this administration,” said Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic at the Washington Post. “And it’s something that caused the fashion industry to do a little bit of soul searching in terms of how it relates to product, and whether or not its work product should be political.”
The Trumps have a unique relationship with the fashion industry. Nordstrom dropped the clothing line of Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, citing low performance. Opponents of the president urged a boycott of the brand. And White House adviser Kellyanne Conway breached ethical lines by promoting Ivanka’s brand from the briefing room.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump came under fire for manufacturing his own brand items overseas. Macy’s dropped his line early in the campaign in light of his controversial rhetoric.
Now that he is president, designers are using the runway as a platform to protest his policies.
Politics was a feature of fashion shows this year. Different labels dress their models in items such as pink resistance hats and “She persisted” T-shirts. Designers for the Public School label featured red “Make America New York” hats and shirts on the runway, while a remix of “This Land Is Your Land” played as the theme song. The label Talbot Runhof featured shirts embroidered with the word “SAD!” — a play on Trump tweets.
In some ways, the clash between the fashion industry and the Trump presidency isn’t all that surprising, as the former is typically aligned with liberal politics and was supportive of the Hillary Clinton campaign.
In 2016, Vogue supported Clinton, its first ever endorsement of a presidential candidate. Editor Anna Wintour hosted a fashion week fundraiser for the first female nominee of a major party. The potential for a first woman president shed a new light on politics, power and fashion. Clinton’s loss and Trump’s election raised the question of how women’s magazines cover the Trump era.
For her part, Mrs. Trump is already embracing fashion as diplomacy and is conscious of her clothing choices. At her husband’s inauguration, she wore American designer Ralph Lauren, seen as a sign of patriotism. And now that the first lady plans to move to Washington full time, the spotlight on fashion and politics in the Trump era will grow.