Fashion Has More to Contribute to the Political Discussion than Counting Dresses in Washington

Amid mass immigration protests, is revisiting Trump’s “dress shop” comment really the best use of our industry’s time and influence?

“Fashion news” is exactly what it sounds like: news about or pertaining to fashion. As one can imagine, there are slow news days during which editors might give coverage to things that perhaps normally wouldn’t warrant attention.

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump said in an interview that “dress shops” in Washington, D.C. were sold out ahead of his inauguration, deducing that this was because so many people would be in attendance. Almost immediately, Racked disproved this by calling several stores in the area and simply asking if they had gowns available. They did. Case closed. Move on.

However, last week, the story continued when Washington Post ran an article about one boutique owner who had a surplus of dresses, and needed to have a sale to unload her stock. Other publications picked up the story. This was fashion’s version of the side-by-side Washington Mall photographs, comparing Barack Obama’s inauguration crowd to Trump’s.

But can the success of an event be measured by fashion and garments sold? If the entire city actually had sold out, then yes. Although one could always argue that perhaps stores simply hadn’t properly prepared for the event by stocking enough product. Having enough product in stock is a major part of a buyer’s job, which involves forecasting demand. This year, demand was already low, as Trump’s inaugural festivities had fewer balls than his predecessor’s, something that was announced back in December.

What focusing on one boutique also doesn’t take into account is the luxury retail landscape in D.C.—were there other stores having the same problem? Can the failure of an event be measured by fashion and garments not sold? If the entire city actually had a surplus, then yes. That, however, is incredibly difficult to measure.

Anyone who has worked for a corporate retail chain knows that the price of an individual garment will be the same across all store locations. So even if, for example, the Gucci boutique in D.C. was allocated extra gowns ahead of the inauguration, they would not go on sale at that specific Gucci location. More than likely, the extra gowns would simply be sent to other stores. The boutique featured in the Washington Post is independent, and has nowhere else to allocate its stock. The owner either sells the dresses, or she’s stuck with them.

And what of the big-name department stores in the city? When called, a sales associate at Saks said the store did have a large selection of dresses, although not too many on sale—one would have to go to the outlet for that. Meanwhile, a Saks Off Fifth associate said that the inauguration had actually “cleaned them out” of dresses (although they did have a few racks).

Perhaps the information beginning to present itself is not actually of inauguration attendance, but of consumer habits in Washington—are women seeking to shop at lower price points? Or are they more interested in high-end labels than independent boutiques? We are still so, so far from a clear picture, or even a decent understanding because no one has the exact numbers. Additionally, one cannot research modern consumer habits without considering online sales.

Over the past few years, online luxury shopping has become increasingly popular, with established department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and the aforementioned Saks all catering to an online market. One also must consider the rise of online-only entities, such as Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi. Not only is standard shipping free from many of these retailers, but in the case of Net-a-Porter, it is also fast, with purchases being able to reach Washington, D.C. within three business days. To get an understanding of how many sales e-tailers made related to the inauguration, one would have to find out if there were increased orders shipped to Washington ahead of the ceremony. FU reached out to Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi, and Rent the Runway (which also has a brick-and-mortar location in Washington), but they did not respond.

Yes, the above is a hefty amount of research and nitpicking done in order to criticize…nitpicking. I mean it as a gentle ribbing of sorts, to say, “Hey, Fashion, aren’t you blowing this a tad out of proportion?” It’s one thing to report on unsubstantiated boasting and falsehoods (Fact: the crowd at the inauguration was not the largest in history. Fact: “dress shops” were not sold out of gowns and dresses in advance of, or at any point during, the inauguration), but focusing on the fact that one boutique in DC is having a sale due to a surplus seems to be spinning a story out of nothing. 

And then Saturday happened.

In the face of people being detained in airports, reporting on dresses in Washington seems insignificant. In the face of mass protests, reporting on dresses in general might seem vapid. In the midst of a nation divided—in which the rift is only getting deeper, with both sides feeling pained, ignored, unsafe—nitpicking fashion discussions seem tone deaf.

Attending fashion-related events in recent months has been a bizarre activity. Soirees planned weeks (if not months) in advance suddenly become hollow for attendees even marginally informed of the day’s events. Have you heard this? What’s going to happen? Did you attend the protest? Mood lighting dances on the walls. Disco music plays. Handsome men with freakishly good bone structure glide around the room with trays of champagne flutes. Visually, it’s swanky, but the room is anxious.

And so the nitpicking about dresses in Washington comes into focus: There is a need and desire among fashion writers and journalists to speak out, to contribute in some way to the national discussion. Although it can be difficult to find an angle relevant to the subject matter in which we are experts. This is how we end up with articles even tenuously related to fashion—so that we can still chime in on the politics. However, in reality, there is no shortage of topics to choose from if one wants to have a nuanced discussion about the role the fashion industry plays in both politics and everyday life—and vice versa. Pink pussy hats. Black hoodies. The re-shoring of factories. Immigrant workers. And even if the fashion news of the day is strictly related to the industry (as we will see when fashion week kicks off), writing about your industry does not mean you aren’t connected to the world at large, it just means you are doing your job.

Humans have the capacity to be, to feel, to take interest in more than one thing at a time, even if they contradict each other. We are able to be frivolous and to be engaged in complex social issues. Just as an actor can do a romantic comedy and voice a hard-hitting documentary, just as a musician can pen both a corporate jingle and an activist anthem, just as an athlete can protest before throwing a ball back and forth, so too can fashion journalists report on glamour as well as how fashion is a reflection of society at any given moment. Perhaps this is where those who dismiss fashion writers as unable to contribute to intelligent discussion (as Tucker Carlson did when he told Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca to “stick to [writing about] thigh-high boots”) can be shown how integral to everyday life fashion is. But politically minded articles that pertain to fashion will only succeed if there is a worthwhile story in the first place.

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