As they did with Michelle Obama, the fashion news media has been keeping a close eye on what Melania Trump has been wearing—after all, what the First Lady wears is worth paying attention to. But all hell broke loose this weekend when it was revealed that the Dolce & Gabbana coat Trump wore in Sicily cost over $51,000. It was something of a Marie Antoinette moment for the FLOTUS, as some outlets noted that the cost of the coat was roughly what most American households make annually.
Marie Antoinette was famously known as the “fashion queen,” and her lavish lifestyle eventually led to her downfall. This is not to say that Madame Trump is proclaiming the American people should eat cake in the absence of bread. Trump’s husband was ludicrously wealthy before entering politics, and taxpayer dollars likely did not fund her most recent fashion acquisition. And while times are tough for many Americans (especially the ones that voted for 45), they are nowhere near French-revolution tough (yet). But one can’t help but notice that both women happened to have a lot of money at a time when most of the people they preside over do not, and that their lavish displays of wealth aren’t going over that well.
This, however, seems to be the case for most women in the political spotlight. Last December, British Prime Minister Theresa May was criticized for wearing £995 ($1,280 USD) leather pants in a profile, and Robin Givhan noted that the outrage over Melania’s coat was similar to the media frenzy caused when Michelle Obama wore a pair of $540 Lanvin sneakers.
In the last case, context was the biggest issue, as Obama was volunteering at a soup kitchen when she donned the shoes. There was significantly less outrage (depending on the publication reporting) when she wore a custom Atelier Versace gown with an estimated price tag of $12,000 to a state dinner. In the case of May, the pants seemed to be part of a larger criticism of the PM’s love of fashion. As for Trump? It was just so much money.
Robin Givhan has brilliantly stood up for luxury fashion in the past by comparing our reactions to the price tag to how we treat the cost of luxury cars—with fashion being associated with women, and cars with men, our acceptance of one over the other is rooted in sexism. She repeated the argument in her assessment of the Dolce & Gabbana coat, noting that the coat itself is not the problem, but the decision to wear it was.
Though Trump’s sartorial choice was certainly tone deaf, it also seems a little unfair, considering how much less grief is given to her husband, who has a preference for custom Brioni suits, which can cost as much as $15,000. In fact, most people have done the opposite in poking fun at his cheap Trump-brand ties. Come to think of it, has anyone looked into the cost of what male politicians wear?
Do we need to stop watching what women in power wear? No. For the most part, clothing is actually a fascinating communication (or manipulation) tool for anyone in politics savvy enough to know that image is everything. Brioni suits are “normal” on a man like Trump, but could you imagine how much distrust they would generate for Bernie Sanders if he wore them? Men are equally part of the fashion system. Perhaps it’s not that we need to stop discussing what women in politics wear, but that we need to hold men to the same standards.