Melania Trump's sartorial selections have been the subject of almost continuous controversy since her husband won the election. The latest controversy involves a decision on her part to wear a sequin skirt and matching jacket to attend President Trump's address at a joint session of Congress (at 9pm) last week. Since, she has been widely criticized for the choice, with many arguing that both the sequined outfit and its price tag (close to $10,000) were inappropriate for the occasion. Let's focus on the question of the clothes themselves: should the First Lady of the United States wear sequins to Congress if she pleases?
This sequined congressional incident ultimately comes down to questions of appropriateness and the tide of convention in fashion. And these are difficult questions to tackle for a few reasons.
First, appropriateness concerns the matter of taste, that ambiguous force that deems it a faux pas to wear white to a Western wedding or a colorful outfit to somber occasions in certain cultures. Depending on who you ask, good taste is either an indispensable virtue or a certain path to doom. I surmise that so many artists, from Picasso and Dali, to Edith Sitwell and George Bernard Shaw, saw good taste as one of the ultimate restrictions to the creation of art because taste intimately reflects current social conventions. The function of art in a society is to upend these conventions in order to evolve our thinking forward. That's why good art is so often in bad taste. In other words, sometimes inappropriateness and a little bad taste does more to advance the conversation than sticking to convention and good taste can do.
Second, appropriateness, essentially the idea that there are unwritten rules around what we should or should not wear, constrains our relationship with our clothes, for one, and with ourselves, for another. When there are rules, rules that we don't write, we become disempowered from using our clothes in whichever way we deem fit to express whatever it is we want to say. At a fairly superficial level, white after Labor Day in the US is one such convention that should have been dispensed with decades ago. Who says; why not wear white whenever we please? In a much more substantive capacity, what is or isn't deemed appropriate fashion reflects social rules that employ our clothes as tools to establish and uphold well-defined, sometimes narrow categories of identity in a society. For example, consider sartorial rules that have historically restricted gender identity and tightly constrained the expression of a binary gender construct through fashion.
Marlene Dietrich in menswear in the 1930s, and a young Parisian man in a dress in 2017 (via Dazed, photo: Jamie Morgan). The question of why a man shouldn't wear a dress in 2017 is the logical continuum of why a women shouldn't have worn a suit in 1930, and both essentially ask the question: what is appropriate attire given the construction of gender roles at this moment in time? And, perhaps more importantly, why?
Fashion would not be doing its job if it didn't continuously strive to challenge some of these more restrictive dimensions of appropriateness, thereby forcing us to confront our norms and assumptions about some of society's most fundamental constructs.
The takeaway? Appropriateness is not always the most productive thing for the arc of progress in society.
Let's hone in more specifically on Mrs. Trump and the appropriateness of her sequined choice. From the few public statements she has made (either with her words or her clothes) since the spotlight landed on her, she has at times hit the right note, and at others, stumbled. Her inauguration day wardrobe, start to finish, from her power-blue Ralph Lauren ensemble to her architectural Hervé Pierre inauguration gown, told the story of a woman in control of her image and perhaps her life, no matter how much the narrative in the months prior speculated about her submissiveness and helplessness in her marriage.
A notable misstep was the plagiarism of Michelle Obama's speech, which made her seem at the very least perilously out of touch, and at worst, unethical. Her pink pussy-bow blouse after her husband's vile remarks on the same subject was either a power play, a subversive statement of her disapproval heard round the world, or another instance of her being totally disconnected from the wide-reaching implications of her every public decision, including what she wears. The same goes for the sequins. This is a First Lady who isn't living in the White House, who only recently appointed a social secretary; a woman who is not playing by the rules. Are the sequins reinforcing that message? Or, are they a tone-deaf choice by a public figure still struggling to grasp the significance of the role she now occupies? The thing is, we don't know enough about her to be able to conclude: is she using her clothes to knowingly make a statement? Is she in on the joke or is the joke on her? Time will tell.
For what it's worth, I think it's wonderful that she wore sequins to a joint session of Congress. Why not? It was an interesting sartorial choice that, whether she intended it to or not, fostered a cultural conversation about the statements we make with our clothes. We can argue that it's not appropriate, that it somehow takes away from the importance of the occasion she was attending. But why should we come to such a conclusion in the first place? What does that line of thinking reveal about the way we see fashion? About the way we view femininity or self-expression? And about the social constructs we unwittingly enforce and uphold with those assumptions? As the First Lady, Mrs. Trump wields a lot of power. In this case, by wearing what she wanted without feeling the need to play by anyone else's rules, she gave herself permission to dress authentically to who she is. What she may or may not realize is that in so doing, she has given us permission to do the same.