This was such a bizarre choice that I, and apparently a lot of other people on social media, checked numerous sources to confirm it was true before reacting because, really, who on earth would do that?
She did it.
According to a tweet by CNN’s Jim Acosta, a FLOTUS spokesperson confirmed the wardrobe choice, saying, that the fashion malfunction had “no hidden message” and hoped “the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.”
Hope springs eternal.
First, yes, I do care.
The first lady’s spokesperson may wish we wouldn’t focus on her fashion, but I’m going to, and I’ll tell you why.
In my experience, at least for women, fashion often is a form of leadership communication. What you choose to wear can do everything from a) project something you think or believe; b) draw attention to an issue you represent; c) make public comments more memorable; and d) indicate your seriousness about/respect for/disdain for a situation.
Think I sound silly? Ask Madeleine Albright. In her book, "Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box," she talks about the pins and brooches she wore as part of her diplomatic communications strategy. NPR referred to it as Madame Secretary’s “jewelry box diplomacy.”
I know it from my own experiences, too.
I became the first woman head of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston right after the sex abuse scandal and just at the start of the economic meltdown. It was a crash course in leading while being female. During those first couple of years, I won a prestigious women’s award from our Chamber of Commerce. Rather than wear a more traditional business suit to give my acceptance speech, I decided to go fashion-forward. I wore black leather boots and a bolero jacket made of faux leopard fur.
For months after, people would come up to me and say, “I remember you, you wore that jacket at that awards lunch and you said…”. It’s the second part of that sentence that’s important. It was striking to me when I realized that the visual impact of what I was wearing actually made what I said stick, too. I had focused my remarks on solidarity in response to the Haiti earthquake, which had just happened. I decided right there and then that if daring sartorial choices would help assure better attention to social justice issues, then so be it.
We have dress codes in organizations because we are so aware that attire is communication, and often drives behavior. It’s the same reason I won’t let my son wear sweatpants to school.
Melania Trump was a fashion model. She, at least as much as anyone else, should understand the statement value of fashion. Indeed, I’m sure she does. Just look at the magnificent, tasteful, perfectly stated suit she chose to wear to her husband's inauguration. Harper’s Bazaar claimed the first lady was deliberately seeking to channel Jackie Kennedy via that particular fashion choice. I admit, the same thing occurred to me when I saw it. Fashion is a form of signaling. Always has been.
I can’t pretend to know what the first lady was trying to communicate, but I have to believe she knew she was communicating something. And I wish she would have chosen to communicate something else, or nothing at all with her wardrobe choice. I don’t believe she doesn’t care, but, weirdly, she decided to say she didn’t, in giant letters right on her back.
It projects a Marie Antoinette brand of cruelty that is, at the very least, clueless and unfortunate.