After a week of media attention on the United States’ ‘tender age’ detention centres (AKA internment camps for immigrant children), Melania Trump made a surprise visit to a shelter in Texas. Every sartorial step First Ladies make is deconstructed – from Melania to Michelle, Hillary to Jackie. Hence, the total chaos Trump has caused by striding into her humanitarian visit wearing an army green Zara parka (£29) with the words ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ scrawled in white graffiti on her back.
‘There is no hidden message’, said her spokeswoman. While her husband, the President of the United States, was quick to tweet an explanation: ‘“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!’
Tone-deaf is the sweetest reasoning being offered. However, that hasn’t stopped the memes from whizzing across the digisphere and the frontpages printed with her image splashed front and centre. Melania has successfully overshadowed the heartbreaking reason she was visiting the US-Mexican border in the first place. Well done, Trump, you’ve changed the conversation.
This is by no means the first time Melania’s fashion choices have raised eyebrows. Remember when she went to aid the Texas flood crisis in a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos? There should be a trigger warning whenever this FLOTUS heads to a trauma zone.
This time, however, the controversy is not to do with the outfit's price tag and impracticality. For someone rarely – if ever – seen out of designer garms the choice of a fast-fashion item has led many to read her jacket as a purposeful statement. The industry that created this parka champions itself as a magnifier of society acting as a semaphore of the times. As the global rhetoric becomes more political Zara probably assumed this protest jacket would speak to the disillusioned masses, not the elite that mandates them.
Everything we wear is coded with our intention. It’s inflected with our class, our privilege and our definition of status symbols. Wear a Gucci handbag and you’re signifying your knowledge of fashion, wealth, trends and the persistent dominance of Europe as the arbitrators of style. Throughout history, fashion has been a tool for silently explaining rank, whether used as a direct and rigid identifier of birthright or an ironic appropriation of elitist symbols.
Semiotician, Ferdinand de Saussure said, ‘one characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified.’ Academically speaking, her jacket (the signifier) can never be read as simply a protective layer because clothing, like Melania, doesn’t exist within a vacuum. What it means (the signified) is that the graffitied message isn’t just an aesthetic embellishment but a cultural edifice. It’s an insight into the hegemonic structures guiding her.
Clothing is not a language, it’s a series of messages and metaphors that are dependent on context. Colin Campbell writes in the essay When The Meaning Is Not The Message, ‘if clothes perform an expressive function then it must follow that what they express is the self, and hence can be regarded as indicative of a person’s identity’. As Melania has to wear clothes (avoiding them all together would be no more sensitive to the political situation) what she wears is always going to be ‘read’ for meaning. It shouldn’t be forgotten that clothes can be worn to send a message but even if that is not their intention they will act as that message anyway. Simply put, while she can’t win or lose because whatever she puts on her back will be discussed and diagnosed, that shouldn’t be a reason to choose incendiary items.
Donald Trump is not shy of manipulating his appearance to send a message either. Though he wears oversized suits and tawdry ties, he’s still communicating with the public. As a man of untold wealth – still waiting for that tax return, Don – he has his pick of tailors and designers. And, yet, he chooses baggy, worn clothes. Not so long ago in the 90s, Trump was a slick preppy player dressed in well-fitting suits. By avoiding the visual clichés of the ruling class he can signal to his electorate that he isn’t like the rest of the gentry.
Unlike her husband, Melania’s sartorial statements are never quite as clear as we’d like – is she asking us to take notice or ignore her? Is this a way of blindsiding the media and dragging attention away from a stress point in the Trump regime? In lieu of criticizing her husband’s politics or even the ‘fake news’ cycle, was this her way of using her voice? Or does she really just not care?