Should Fashion Designers Decline Dressing Melania Trump?
I included an article in the last week in review about how the fashion community is approaching the idea of dressing a future First Lady Trump. This isn't the first such piece; after the industry heavily threw its weight behind Hillary Clinton, many are struggling to come to terms with fashion's place in a Trump presidency. And I get it- I mean, I'm struggling to come to terms with my place in a Trump presidency.
Fashion's rumblings on the issue were largely started by designer Sophie Theallet who penned an open letter a few weeks ago stating her intentions not to dress Mrs. Trump and asking her colleagues to do the same. She wrote:
"As an independent brand, we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals...The Sophie Theallet brand stands against all discrimination and prejudice...As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associate myself in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by...Integrity is our only true currency."
- Sophie Theallet via Twitter
Since that time, when faced with the question, responses from designers have ranged from "honored" (Thom Browne) and "yes" (Tommy Hilfiger) to "no interest whatsoever" (Mark Jacobs) and "challenging to be personally involved" (Derek Lam). Diane von Furstenberg made a thoughtful statement about fashion's inclusive nature. And Cynthia Rowley nailed it with this second order observation:
"Checking someone’s ethical beliefs before they’re allowed to purchase, sets up an exclusionary dynamic that feeds into the exact mentality that is preventing us from moving forward in a positive direction."
- Cynthia Rowley
I'm always thrilled when fashion gets substantive; recognizing the political power of what we wear is part of that. And I believe that brands and companies absolutely have a responsibility to be mindful about the wider implications and consequences of their business operations, whether those are environmental, social, economic, political, or ideological. Trump has certainly represented an unprecedented, in-your-face challenge to the very ideals of justice and equality underpinning our democracy. To say that he is the fairly elected leader through a free democratic process doesn't diminish that fact (that he is also fundamentally unqualified for the job isn't helping here). Normalizing in any way Mr. Trump's divisive, racist, misogynistic, us and them rhetoric is unacceptable, and we must do everything we can to continuously point out that these sentiments are incongruent with democracy. Anger certainly has its place in promoting both political evolution and revolution, and perhaps we should be angry. So does resistance, which starts when we take a stand in whatever way we can.
But I have really found myself struggling with whether declining to dress the future First Lady of the United States is a productive step or a counterproductive one. Whether it's a bold act of resistance in a designer's little corner of the world (which is ultimately all we can do anyway) or whether it's the same divisive Trump poison administered quid pro quo. It seems acts of protest, big and small, are happening everywhere. This Republican presidential elector is not casting his electoral vote for Trump, citing him unfit for the office. Jill Stein is leading efforts to recount votes in a number of key states (and Michael Moore is suggesting a grassroots revolution against the electoral college system given that Clinton won the popular vote). Lebron James isn't staying in a Trump Hotel during an upcoming game in New York. If people are protesting in whatever way they are able, should fashion designers take a stand against dressing Melania Trump?
Because I have re-written my conclusion to this piece approximately 5 times, I'm going to go ahead and first share with you my mental proceedings.
Point # 1: Mrs. Trump is not President-elect Trump and if there's anything that a faction of people prepared to elect the first female President should eagerly subscribe to it's that a woman is entitled to be considered separately from her husband. She undoubtedly has her own opinions and her own humanity. That's something that I, as a human being but also as a liberal, wouldn't deprive any woman of, so why deprive her? Also, if there is a high-profile woman in the Trump camp it is Ivanka Trump, who has, thus far, demonstrated an unprecedented level of involvement in and support for her father's political career. Why isn't anyone talking about not dressing her?
Counterpoint # 1: Checkmate.
Point # 2: There are a lot of ways in which the fashion community, wittingly or unwittingly subscribes to widening, and not narrowing, the inequality and injustice in our world. One doesn't have to go much further than the frenetic speed at which fashion now moves (and the volume of clothes it moves) to state, simply, that this model of production is a direct threat to our collective well-being on earth, and to the very same values Donald Trump has repeatedly challenged himself. Yet, at every opportunity that the fashion industry has had to slow down and rethink its relationship with this unsustainable model, it chooses to speed up, produce more, cut costs, compromise quality, and offshore to cheaper countries with weaker environmental and labor regulations — all to get us to buy more and buy faster. These decisions are not inconsequential; they directly challenge equality, they directly create injustice, they directly jeopardize our planet and the ability for us to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for all humanity. If Donald Trump's statements feel like a threat to our values, surely this troubled business model should as well.
Counterpoint # 2: Just because the fashion industry could be taking different steps to stand up to inequality or injustice doesn't mean that this concrete step is any less important. A stand is a stand, and no matter how small it may seem, it can prompt major change, even revolution. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she couldn't have anticipated that this small act of resistance would turn into a watershed moment for the American Civil Rights Movement. When it comes to standing up for one's values or principles, no act is any less consequential or significant than another, and any attempt at assigning weight is not only futile, but counterproductive.
Point # 3: If we extrapolate the logic behind declining to dress Mrs. Trump, where does that really get us as a society? This isn't about taking a higher moral ground, turning the other check, or a Gandhian view of the precariousness of an eye for an eye mentality. If the election proved anything it's that there are limitations to liberal thinking, and this time, they got the best of us. Nicholas Kristof pointed it out earlier this year (here and here), and then there was this post-election opinion piece by Mark Lilla, in which he writes:
"The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and 'celebrate' our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing."
In this case, the limitation is that we have a major problem with Donald Trump using exclusionary language against certain groups, particularly those who are vulnerable, but we are ourselves exclusionary. If, for example, a white male Republican had made a statement calling on fashion designers not to dress a high-profile Muslim figure or a transgendered one, the liberal bloc, including many who probably support not dressing Mrs. Trump, would be livid.
Counterpoint # 3: We cannot deny the impact that white Christian men have had on oppressing and repressing various groups throughout history, whether through colonialism, slavery, for religious reasons, or economic ones- this is a truth. The sooner we collectively accept it, the sooner we can heal from the deep injustices exacted against certain racial, gender, ethnic and religious groups over time. In this context, what is the responsibility of the oppressed to their oppressors? If oppressed groups don't get angry, take a stand, and resist, how will the oppression ever come to an end? In this review of Martha Nussbau's recent book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Amia Srinivasan writes:
"When a woman is raped, is there not some insult to her dignity, some violation of her standing as a human being, that must be undone? Does gender justice not demand that men lose their privilege, and racial justice that white people lose theirs? Nussbaum anticipates this sort of worry, telling us that 'reversing positions through down-ranking does not create equality. It just substitutes one inequality for another.'
There is something at once true and misleading here. It is true that when an oppressed group gains the upper hand, however fleetingly, over its oppressors, this does not yet constitute equality—and, indeed, that the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors can lead to its own form of inhumanity. But it’s misleading to suggest that one inequality is just the same as the other, as if we should feel the same about black people mocking white people as we do about whites mocking blacks, or about women silencing men as we do men silencing women."
Basically, this suggests that it is fundamentally unfair for the oppressors to call out the oppressed for responding unequally to an inequality that the oppressors themselves are responsible for creating (are you still with me?!). In this context, coming back to our examination of a potential sartorial boycott against Melania Trump, if by declining to dress her, designers are standing up to President-elect Trump's racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, this would constitute a productive step in supporting the rights of these marginalized and vulnerable groups. And if so, it's vital to the operation of our democracy. In fact, we should be taking these kind of stands all the time if we seek to get to a society in which the gap in access to opportunity between those who have historically oppressed and those who have been historically oppressed is as narrow as it ought to be.
The points and counterpoints could go on (she could buy the clothes on her own, what precedent does this set for concerting in any way with people with whom we disagree, etc) but in the interest of keeping this piece brief (ha!) I'll stop here.
So, what can we conclude? Well, I'll speak for myself. If I were a fashion designer, I would probably dress Mrs. Trump, but I would make every effort for the garment she ends up wearing to stand for the values I hold dear. It would be a piece made with respect for the environment and labor, made locally, and I would donate whatever proceeds and use whatever press comes of the exchange to support people and groups targeted by Donald Trump's rhetoric. Now if I made menswear, I'd have a much harder time dressing President-elect Trump. But since I'd be a designer who manufactured locally, what with Trump's use of factories in Bangladesh, Honduras, and Vietnam, he probably wouldn't want to support making America great again in that way, would he?
Feature image: Darren Hauck/Getty