Following the response to the @Zara jacket worn by #MelaniaTrump @FLOTUS, the First Lady Communications Director, Stephanie Grisham, said “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message.” Correct! There was no hidden message. Rather, it was explicit, loud and clear.
“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”
Most people understand that clothing is a form of self-expression, in other words, communication. What we wear says a lot about us, but like any communication, verbal or non-verbal, the message sent and the message received can be very different. There are many speculative, and sometimes spurious, accounts of meanings attributed to nonverbal behaviour such as liars scratching their noses or ‘power posing’. Communication through clothing is no different.
There are many claims, yet few reliable empirical studies, about what our clothing says about us. The reality is that unless we speak the same language as the wearer, as observers, interpreting the message is often difficult as it can be ambiguous or incomprehensible.
The judgements we make based on appearance, including clothing. depend on many factors including but not limited to motivation, bias, socio-cultural associations, experience and expectations. However, clothing which has symbols on it, such as logos or slogans, makes understanding much easier for any observer. Consider the powerful role of logos and branding in making a statement about the social status of the wearer. Now consider how powerful words are when emblazoned on clothing.
Back in the 1980s Vivienne Westwood and then Katherine Hamnett used fashion to make politically charged statements by adding slogans to their clothing. Typically, slogans were on t-shirts, described in Dazed (February 2018) as “arguably fashion’s greatest leveller: the most popular and affordable item of clothing on the planet, it offers comfort and utility across all genders, classes and cultures.”
The slogan ‘T’ was the focus of a recent exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. The exhibition showed how the plain t-shirt has been manipulated through slogans to represent a powerful political tool. The power lies in the simplicity and ubiquity of a simple t-shirt to both raise awareness and encourage action for change.
Following Westwood’s and Hamnett’s lead, last year, Grazia Chiuri for Dior designed the ‘We should all be feminists’ T-shirt and more recently, Vetement, DKNY, Alexander Wang and Prabal Gurung have all used slogans to make powerful political statements.
This week brought a new twist to the political statement on clothing when Melania Trump was photographed boarding a plane to Texas to visit immigrant children, held in detention centres wearing a Zara jacket bearing the slogan ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?’ on the back. Given the obvious high-profile of the First Lady, and the image she usually portrays, the cheap parka was a very surprising choice. But that is not the most controversial point.
The slogan makes a clear and unambiguous statement. It communicates an attitude most people would consider insensitive and offensive given the context. The slogan was in large white capital letters across the back of the jacket so it was clearly visible as the First Lady boarded the plane. Why would Ms Trump choose to wear such an obvious, politically charged item of clothing when making such a sensitive political mission?
In agreement with the spokesperson who stated “there was no hidden message”, reasoning leads us to conclude that she wore it to make an obvious (unhidden) point. It is less easy to decipher who this point was intended for. Being generous, we might reason it was intended for her husband as she was acting against his policies, rather than being intended for the political mission she was making. Whichever way we reason, it is difficult to argue that she was unaware of its effect. Social media was quick to act with criticisms of the choice of clothing being made across the globe. Nevertheless, reports claim that after removing the jacket initially at the detention centres, and when Ms Trump was aware of the furore on social media, she put the jacket back on.
High-profile personalities, politicians and celebrities are the focus of media attention. Their clothing is of a great interest to many people as well their fans and followers. In fact, what celebrities wear becomes the trends we wear later. It’s difficult to imagine that the First Lady is not well-aware of the power of clothing and that appearance matters.
Without doubt, this jacket was chosen for a reason; to make a powerful political statement. Regardless of its intended receiver, this choice was demonstrates incredibly poor taste, and a shockingly insensitive and offensive decision.