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First-lady fashion dramas: This one seems different

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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.

The often well-dressed Mark Twain once said: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Mary Stanik

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.

Purposeful choice

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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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/27/2018 - 09:11 am.

    There are time when a cigar is just a cigar, but…

    Is it about the reportage about Trump’s infidelities ?

    Is it about the fake news that upsets her cherished husband ?

    Is it about the children at the southern borders ?

    or is it just a coat ?

    As a former model steeped in the importance of clothes as a means of social messaging and positioning, and the probable paucity items of clothing sold for under $100 in her closet, we can easily discard “just a coat”.

    In a way, it’s a cry for help–she really doesn’t care about any of it–she didn’t want any of it…she’s just trotted out as a symbol of caring and kindness and motherhood–as unfit as she is as a proletariat hands-on model of any of that. She’s probably survives by repeating the mantra…”he’s 72 and I’m 48….”

  2. Submitted by Misty Martin on 06/27/2018 - 10:21 am.

    The first lady knew what she was getting into . . .

    I can’t feel sorry for Melania – sorry. She knew what she was marrying into and she should have known what she was in for when her husband became President. I can only imagine the kind of criticism that former First Lady Michelle Obama would have endured had she made this poor fashion choice – only Michelle Obama would NOT have made this choice, as she was and is a lady of impeccable taste and good manners.

    I didn’t know about the former First Lady Rosalyn Carter having worn an off-the-rack gown that she had worn before in 1977! Good for her!!! I’ve always admired President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter. They know that it matters more about what’s in one’s heart than it does in what one wears. True Christians, both of them.

    With that being said, and with all the publicity around what the present first lady wears (and how much it costs – $20,000.00 for a pair of shoes worn to a children’s hospital in WV) I think that she or someone from her staff should have had second thoughts about wearing a $39.00 jacket with those emboldened words seemingly telling the world that she “doesn’t” care. This immigration crisis is real and the cries of those children are real and anything that negates that is simply tactless, insensitive and cruel.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/27/2018 - 11:16 am.

    Bottom line? That jacket was tacky and vulgar and in the very worst taste imaginable in the middle of an immigration crisis where the United States of America was ripping babies and toddlers and kids under ten from their parents’ arms and protection. And millions of Americans were protesting.

    Her jacket pronounced that She Doesn’t Care. About any such humanitarian crisis. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care about anything at all beyond her own person and maybe her own son.

    That’s my conclusion. If she didn’t mean that–and oh, boy! have there been theories about her intent!–why did she take the chance that any of us would conclude that she doesn’t care about anything or any of us? She has severely damaged her personal “brand,” which used to be that she at least was a very savvy fashionista who is a stunningly beautiful woman. She’s still beautiful but she’s made us wonder about the rest of her, with that sophomoric jacket messaging.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/27/2018 - 01:15 pm.


      I’m not one of those men who passes self-righteous judgment on what women wear, but should the First Lady really be wearing clothes with sassy slogans?

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/27/2018 - 01:00 pm.

    I can’t seem to remember a similar uproar from the left when Keith Ellison sported a T Shirt that said “I don’t believe in borders”, which would seem to be a direct refutation of the oath he swore to protect and support the Constitution of the United States.


    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/27/2018 - 02:27 pm.

      Now that you decided to put on your “serious constitutionalist patriot hat” on again, it would be helpful if you understood that, like the recent Supreme Court decision, under the Constitution the President has wide latitude on how to handle border and immigration issues. What President Trump decides will be different than a President Ellison would–that’s the Constitution for you. So no, his t-shirt is not “un-Consitutional”–it’s just not what you want.

      In other words, the Trump decision is not “Constitutional”–it is merely an expression of his Constitutional powers–like any future President will have. And like before, the worm turns and no telling what will be coming through.

      Whereas when a public figure is sent to a place for the sole purpose to demonstrate the administration’s concern is seen wearing a coat that says “I really don’t care” clearly steps on the message of “concern”.

      That’s where the news comes from. Not from one of 435 House members.

      Try to remember that there is freedom of expression–not freedom from consequences of that expression.

      Just don’t vote for Ellison next time.

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/27/2018 - 04:49 pm.

        Also, let’s not all pretend to be idiots.

        Sure, Rep. Ellison might have been wearing that tee-shirt because he advocates that the United States dissolve and merge with Mexico and Canada. He also might have been wearing the shirt to, I don’t know, express support for the view that humanity should not allow itself to be divided by race, religion, creed or nationality by those who cultivate hate to hold power over us. Or it could mean 15 or 20 other things.

        Google Ellison’s fashion statement, and the first 20 links are right-wing sites in which it never occurs to the rapporteur that Ellison’s wearing of the shirt could be anything other than a declaration in favor of national dissolution. Is the defining feature of these folks that they lack the imagination to be anything other than literal, or simply that they are dishonest?

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/28/2018 - 11:29 am.

      This is just a friendly suggestion, Curtis: Can you argue on the basis of anything but “what-aboutism”?

      You seem to have an aversion to discussing the negatives of anything Trump, or anything Republican, and thus you try to divert attention to someone or something else. It’s a tiresome debate tactic.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 06/27/2018 - 02:40 pm.

    it was easier to feel sorry for her…

    …when she was silent and in the background and swatting his hand away. But this jacket says she is little different from her husband: same disdain for common people and civil manners, same rich entitlement, same lack of any Christian virtues, just not as clever with the put down names and not as loudly vulgar.

    For those who would compare this to Keith Ellison, this is not a political opinion, this is a powerful person spitting on Americans. This is Marie Antoinette spitting on the masses. There is no similar uproar because this is not similar. And speaking of the constitution it is funny to hear Trump bring it up in one breath and then being all for ignoring habeas corpus in the next or doing everything he can to undermine a free press.

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