Advertisement

Politics, Slogan Clothing and Pop Culture: A Brief History of Melania Trump’s Jacket

Decoding the First Lady’s off-brand fashion choice

In January 1961, a week before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, it was announced that Oleg Cassini would be the sole designer for the imminent First Lady. As reported in Women’s Wear Daily, Cassini told the press they were on the threshold of a ‘new American elegance’ thanks to Jackie Kennedy’s ‘beauty, naturalness, understatement, exposure and symbolism.’

It’s not unusual for American politicians to send political messages through their clothing. Barack Obama often wore suits by Brooklyn-based tailor Martin Greenfield, signifying his support of US industry and jobs. As Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright used brooches to communicate diplomatic intentions. Donald Trump wears the Make America Great Again (MAGA) slogan on his cap. But the First Lady occupies a particular place in American politics where the symbolism of dress takes on a heightened role, becoming a form of diplomacy on a global and domestic stage. This is so embedded into American culture that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has been adding to their First Ladies Collection for more than a century, asking each First Lady to donate a garment that represents them.

gettyimages-84383023_900.jpg

First Lady Michelle Obama, wearing a Jason Wu dress, and U.S President Barack Obama dance on stage during MTV & ServiceNation: Live From The Youth Inaugural Ball at the Hilton Washington on January 20, 2009 in Washington, D.C. - the day President Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Courtesy: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

First Lady Michelle Obama, wearing a Jason Wu dress, and U.S President Barack Obama dance on stage during MTV & ServiceNation: Live From The Youth Inaugural Ball at the Hilton Washington on January 20, 2009 in Washington, D.C. - the day President Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Courtesy: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

So how do we read Melania Trump’s decision to wear a Zara jacket emblazoned with ‘I really don’t care. Do U?’ while travelling to and from a child detention centre in Texas? The First Lady’s unannounced visit came in the wake of the family separation scandal that has engulfed American politics, and which culminated with the President signing an executive order to end the enforced separations which were a direct result of the administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy. Trump’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, reportedly said: ‘It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.’

The focus on the clothing of women in public life is indeed a gendered issue. One which speaks to the fact that historically women had scarce alternative means of public expression. But it is disingenuous to suggest that the First Lady’s wardrobe is not primarily about communication, and the current inhabitants of the White House understand this just as well as previous administrations have. In many ways the jacket is a perfect example of Trumpian doublespeak: boldly proclaiming a message while telling those that focus on the message that they are wrong to do so.

There is often an ambiguity in interpreting dress and using words adds clarity. Text anchors meaning in a way that cut or fabrication can’t, turning the polysemic codes of clothing into an unequivocal statement. The jacket loudly declared a very different message from the one Melania Trump spoke when she asked how she could ‘help these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible.’ The jacket instead signalled a lack of empathy as a political stance in itself, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, ‘a politics of disconnection.’ The flippancy of the remark is unprecedented in First Lady dressing, a position which (largely due to outdated gender codes) is intended to symbolize compassion in any given administration.

gettyimages-980549888_900.jpg

US first lady Melania Trump boards an Air Force plane at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, travelling to Texas to visit facilities that house and care for children taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border, 21 June, 2018. Courtesy: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

US first lady Melania Trump boards an Air Force plane at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, travelling to Texas to visit facilities that house and care for children taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border, 21 June, 2018. Courtesy: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To wear a USD$39 Zara jacket is off-brand for Melania Trump. Her usual fashion choices tend towards the formal – with a penchant for European luxury labels which sits at odds with the administration’s America First focus on US manufacturing. In this she differs from her predecessor. Michelle Obama was credited with democratizing the First Lady wardrobe by mixing brands such as J.Crew and the Gap with established and up-and-coming American-based designers from Calvin Klein to Thakoon and Jason Wu.

Political slogans, however, are very much Team Trump. The incandescent red of Trump’s MAGA cap ensured that slogan clothing was a key part of the presidential campaign. Associated with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, slogan dressing is redolent of rebellion and was used to challenge the establishment rather than uphold the status quo. This notion chimes with Trump’s nativist brand of ‘drain the swamp’ populism. As a stand against the mainstream or to show allegiance to a particular group, slogan T-shirts have history on both sides of the political divide. A 1973 New York Times article titled, ‘The T-Shirt Has Become the Medium for a Message’ featured Watergate-inspired shirts with slogans such as ‘I'm Democrat, Don't Bug Me.’

pa-16297039.jpg

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing at-shirt with a nuclear missile protest message, at 10 Downing Street, where she hosted a reception for British Fashion Week designers, 17 March 1984. Courtesy: PA Images

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing a t-shirt with a nuclear missile protest message, at 10 Downing Street, where she hosted a reception for British Fashion Week designers, 17 March 1984. Courtesy: PA Images

The T-shirt as sartorial activism reached a crescendo when designer Katharine Hamnett met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a Downing Street reception in 1984 emblazoned with the anti-nuclear statement ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ (referring to the proliferation of US Pershing nuclear missiles across Europe). Using simple, bold text Hamnett’s T-shirts are designed to be read from far away and decipherable even in small photographs, imitating the tactics of tabloid headlines. Her current designs include ‘Cancel Brexit’, and she repurposed her original ‘Choose Life’ T-shirt as ‘Choose Love’ for the charity Help Refugees. Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter and the Time’s Up movement all have related merchandise, which is a useful tool for expressing solidarity and raising awareness, but has at times been criticized for marketizing activism.

With politics more polarized than it has been in decades, it’s unsurprising that slogan T-shirts have been embraced as a trend. But issues arise when politics and activism intersect with fashion, which can result in the luxury market commodifying the aesthetics of protest (see Karl Lagerfeld co-opting feminism for a Chanel catwalk finale), and high street stores using text to fetishize the working class experience, a move that has been branded ‘poverty chic’.

Three years after Hamnett wore her anti-nuclear T-shirt to Downing Street, the magazine Smash Hits published an interview with Margaret Thatcher. ‘Some of the kindest people have the most strange appearance,’ Thatcher said. ‘You can't tell their politics by what they look like. You might be able to tell by what they've got printed on their T-shirt but not by what they look like.’ Until last week, this was arguably the most unlikely Venn diagram of politics, slogan clothing and popular culture. In denying there’s any hidden meaning to her jacket, we should take the First Lady’s declaration at face value.

Main image: US first lady Melania Trump boards an Air Force plane at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, travelling to Texas to visit facilities that house and care for children taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border, 21 June, 2018. Courtesy: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She was the presenter of BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Her next publication, The Fashion Chronicles: style stories of history’s best dressed, is out in September. Find her on Twitter and Insta @AmberButchart

Advertisement

Most Read

Why does the ‘men’s rights’ guru to the alt-right surround himself with Soviet-era memorabilia, which he doesn’t even...
Alongside a centuries-old collection of Old Masters, Delftware and Chinoiserie, the Devonshires continue to commission...
In a Victorian-era baths in Glasgow, the artist stages her largest performance project to date, featuring a 24-woman...
In further news: UK class gap impacting young people’s engagement with the arts; Uffizi goes digital; British Museum...
Italian politicians want to censor the artist’s poster for a sailing event, which reads ‘We’re all in the same boat’
A newly-published collection of the artist’s journals allows silenced voices to speak
The arrest of the photojournalist for ‘provocative comments’ over Dhaka protests makes clear that personal liberty...
The auction house insists that there is a broad scholarly consensus that the record-breaking artwork be attributed to...
‘We need more advocates across gender lines and emphatic leaders in museums and galleries to create inclusive,...
In further news: artists rally behind detained photographer Shahidul Alam; crisis talks at London museums following...
Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
The first public exhibition of a 15th-century altar-hanging prompts the question: who made it?
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018