ROSE MARY ROCHE on the delicate art of POLITICAL FASHIONS …
Politics has morphed into our favourite soap opera and its grande dames are our new celebrity crushes. First lady fashion choices are subject to intense scrutiny as well as chauvinistic commentary. From the moment any male politician announces his intention to run for office, the style credentials of his wife or significant other are dissected and discussed relentlessly by both the media and the masses. It is a thankless role – constant examination and criticism of clothes, hair, weight-gain and cosmetic enhancement in exchange for a lack of civilian freedom, a male-defined status (with overtones of Stepford Wife submission) and a constant juggling act between protocol, politics and diplomacy in choosing a wardrobe that must please everyone, while conveying an aura of demure devotion, modesty and a deft understanding of the semiotics of style.
While their husbands focus on world affairs, trade embargos and political alliances, first ladies adopt a roster of politically correct charities and causes while acting as an attractive support act to their alpha males. Yet recently, this traditional role has taken on a distinct frisson of controversy with new political couples such as the Trumps’, the Macrons’ and the Kushners’ refusal to adhere to accepted political norms.
Maybe it’s due to the unconventional nature of the Trump presidency or the chaotic state of world affairs in the sway of populism, Brexit and a tsunami of sex scandals, but political fashion has become a riveting story in its own right. Add to the mix the 24/7 presence of social media, the tension in international relations and heightened sensitivities in the aftermath of Me Too and what politicians wives are wearing and doing has never consumed as many column inches.
Melania’s decadent Dolce e Gabbana couture in Catania, Ivanka’s (ab)use of office to sell her own brand fashions and jewellery and Madame Macron’s predilection for youthful short skirts and leather trousers have all drawn the ire of the chattering classes. When presidents add to this febrile atmosphere – Macron referring to the Australian Prime Minister’s wife as “delicious” and Trump overtly leering at Brigitte Macron on a state visit in Paris, political correspondents weep with joy.
While female politicians are confined by a stricter, although unwritten dress code, they generally adhere to a sensible trouser suit and flat shoes (Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton) or the perennial power suit (Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon), the role of political wife is perceived as more feminine. Power is still seen as emasculating but first ladies are allowed more latitude in terms of colour, style and silhouette than female leaders. Clothes can shape or skew public perceptions and are a powerful tool in the arsenal of the political spouse. When Hillary Clinton stated: “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle”, she was only half joking.
The modern fascination with first lady fashion has its roots in Jackie Kennedy, the most stylish of political consorts. Her understated, streamlined style came at a cost – in her first year as first lady she was reputed to have spent $45k more on her wardrobe than the $100k salary Jack Kennedy earned as president. While we don’t know precisely what Melania Trump budgets, we can estimate that it exceeds this, when her Dolce e Gabbana, flower-encrusted, G7 coat alone cost $51,500.
Melania’s wardrobe as first lady is the epitome of the gold-plated, luxe version of the American dream. She is the ultimate trophy wife, dressed to advertise her husband’s wealth and status while maintaining an uber-polished level of grooming that has the invincibility of armour. She is glacial and perfect, but unlike Michelle Obama who used fashion to appear both accessible and aspirational, Melania doesn’t attempt to convey warmth or empathy with her clothes, (see the PR blunder re wearing stilettos to visit victims of Hurricane Harvey).
Melania’s ultra-expensive designer labels reinforce her difference from the general population, as a billionaire’s wife. When she sported a 25-carat diamond ring in
her heavily airbrushed, official White House portrait, she was asserting this privilege and power.
With the striking white Michael Kors skirt suit accessorised with dramatic Hervé Pierre hat – she may have been making a point re the Stormy Daniels sex scandal, or about the size of her dry-cleaning budget. Perhaps she just wanted to upstage her egotistical spouse and steal his limelight: one small perk of her job that she relishes. When Donald goes low, Melania goes high – in white. To dress as she does requires not only dollars but discipline – those vertiginous heels and that waist-cinching silhouette demands a high pain threshold.
First ladies have become the supermodels of our age – a blend of soft power, fame and fashion. We have had a reality TV president – what next? Perhaps a reality TV first lady? Kim Kardashian, a woman who appreciates intuitively the currency of celebrity, is used to 24/7 media coverage and possesses a massive social media following, recently posed re-styled as Jackie for Interview magazine and reportedly bought her Cartier watch at auction. Watch this space.
Rose Mary Walsh
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