The often well-dressed Mark Twain once said: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
I will assume that were Twain around today, he might extend his thoughts to include women. And perhaps, with special consideration for the women married to our presidents. First lady Melania Trump is almost certainly learning that clothes can indeed make or even un-make the woman. And no, I’ll not discuss her pre-first-lady nude photos. Or that of any other naked person’s influence on society.
Before the often elegantly and expensively clad Trump let her $39 coat tell the world she doesn’t care, more than a few of her predecessors endured various levels of excoriation due to fashion inclinations considered too haute, too pedestrian, or just not dignified or beautiful enough for a role that falls somewhere between monarch and national room mother.
Mary Lincoln’s order: 300 pairs of gloves
Mary Lincoln was considered a horrendous clothing spendthrift, considerations found plausible by one invoice for 300 pairs of gloves ordered during the course of four months. Jacqueline Kennedy was criticized during the 1960 campaign for her taste for French couture, which caused her to have New York’s Chez Ninon make her reproductions of French designs, most famously including the Chanel suit copy she wore on Nov. 22, 1963. Rosalynn Carter, already thought a threadbare successor to the likes of Mrs. Kennedy during the 1976 campaign, caused moderate hysterics in January 1977 when she didn’t order a new inaugural gown and wore an off-the-rack dress she’d worn six years earlier.
Nancy Reagan was ripped by reporters and the public alike for borrowing very high-end clothing. And Michelle Obama was needled regarding the costs (and the source of payment and/or discounts) for her clothes, even though most of what she wore was admired by most dedicated followers of fashion. Save some who didn’t think a sleeveless dress was correct for an official portrait, or a cardigan for meeting Queen Elizabeth II.
The thing is, just about all first ladies have dealt with wardrobe woes in one way or another. As have a great many other women possessing lofty positions. Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain’s first female prime minister, spent huge amounts of time selecting clothing that would make her look feminine in the most powerful, mostly best-of-British way possible. When she wasn’t directing things such as 1982’s Falklands War.
But what separates other first lady dramas from Melania Trump’s wordy coat is that almost no prior first ladies appeared to have actively sought controversy through the language of clothing (much less through actual on-the-record words). I would bet a considerable amount of something that almost all of them would have washed every dish in the White House by hand before purposely trying to convey any message through clothing that might be considered rude, sarcastic, or damaging to her reputation and that of the president.
President Donald Trump said his wife’s coat was a criticism of the press he has called enemies of the people. That may be true. Of course, most presidents and first ladies have had difficulties of some sort with the news media, difficulties the majority of them managed through competent press offices or selective avoidance (Richard Nixon and his Enemies List serving as a glaring exception). As first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy was known to dislike most reporters but told her press secretary to dispense “minimum information with maximum politeness.” Her method likely worked, as it’s doubtful she would have become the world’s most admired woman and the subject of countless fawning stories (including many about her couture clothes) following President Kennedy’s assassination had she engaged in overt press wars.
Melania Trump may truly dislike or even hate the press. But I think her coat goes beyond any message she may have tried to send to reporters, or, as a whole lot of people have said, about the situation involving children being separated from parents and placed in detention camps.
Coarseness has become chic
We live in times where coarseness and vulgarity have become acceptable and even chic. Manners and politesse of the sort that used to be practiced at the White House and throughout society are unknown to hordes of people of all ages and all demographic groups. Small children, teenagers and adults routinely wear clothing with all kinds of crude and vicious sayings that make Melania Trump’s coat look almost mildly snarky. All types of folk don’t care anymore what they say on social media, through their clothing, or even in person. And they don’t really care if you care or not.
As with most Washington furors, this one concerning a coat of many thoughts will calm soon enough. Though photos of the hooded messenger and the stories surrounding it undoubtedly will survive well into the distant future.
In the end, one might want to ask if clothes really make presidents, first ladies or any other woman or man. I am one person who thinks they can.
Especially if one takes the time, and thought, to really care.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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