The Death of Fashion Diplomacy

So the Trump state visit to the United Kingdom, with its Irish interlude and European D-Day sojourn, full of carefully choreographed, performative posturing, has come to an end.

We know only some details of what was discussed — Brexit! Trade! Tiffany brooches! — but visual souvenirs of the Trumps’ attire abound on the digisphere. In the absence of further information about what went on behind closed doors, we are left to mine the formal photo ops for clues; to parse the hats, formal wear and coats.

After all, this is a White House that prizes pageantry and theater, and embraces them as strategic tools — costume included. The trip was predicated on symbolism, and in such context, all public choices have import. Yet we still can’t agree on what it all meant.

Just as the endless stream of name-calling and off-the-cuff remarks from the president has served to numb us to their content, so too has the elaborate stream of obfuscating outfits. Each one opened itself to multiple interpretations from critics and armchair observers around the world, tempting division and dissent through speculation.

For example: The first lady must have been paying homage to her host country when she wore a Gucci dress covered in London landmarks — Big Ben, double-decker bus and all — to board the plane from D.C. (or so claimed Breitbart). But the Hollywood Reporter begged to differ: No, by wearing that dress she was trolling her husband, because Gucci had just held a show that argued emphatically for abortion rights.

Or maybe Mrs. Trump was being diplomatic by arriving and departing in the British heritage brand Burberry (a pussy-bow-print blouse splashed with the word “society” on the way in, and a trench coat as she left). Or no, she was ignoring all that by wearing the French brand Dior to the formal state dinner.

Perhaps she represented the United States by wearing a white coat from The Row to the British D-Day ceremony. Whoops, maybe not, because the day before she wore a belted-up trench dress from another European brand, Celine. (Then again, it was old Celine, from the Phoebe Philo years, so it could have been a feminist gesture.)

And, too, she looked utterly appropriate at the Normandy D-Day celebration in a somber Dior coat and Roger Vivier shoes — both French brands, to salute the French. But she didn’t carry the gesture through by nodding to Irish designers when she was in Ireland. (And who knows? Maybe that was the plan: She had been wearing a Philip Treacy flying saucer hat with the white coat, but when she disembarked in Shannon she had divested herself of the topper.)

The tea leaves were even cloudier on the day she met the queen. The first lady was channeling “My Fair Lady” (the Cecil Beaton/Audrey Hepburn version) when she appeared in her white-and-navy-trimmed Dolce & Gabbana outfit and matching Hervé Pierre hat on her first day abroad, to meet the queen. Or, no, it was Princess Diana. Then again, it could have been “Dynasty” and Alexis Carrington.

Au contraire — she was actually wearing white in order to throw shade at Camilla; everyone knows white is the Duchess of Cornwall’s favorite color, mused the L.A. Times. Actually, she was slighting the Duchess of Sussex, the former Meghan Markle, by choosing a red Givenchy gown for the dinner the Trumps hosted at the American embassy, went another take. (Clare Waight Keller, the Givenchy designer, also made Ms. Markle’s wedding dress.)

Gosh, it was confusing.

The only thing not in dispute is how expensive much of it was. Because the Trumps actually buy their clothes off the rack, it is possible to find and price them all (except the Dior couture gown worn to the state dinner, which is made to order and priced on application): the Burberry blouse costing £650 ($825), the Gucci a cool £2,615 ($3,319), the Givenchy, $8,340. When it came to the Celine trench and the white coat from The Row, she shopped her closet.

Either way, no one blinked an eye, unlike when Mrs. Trump wore a $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat to the G7 in Sicily during Mr. Trump’s first European tour, back when everyone was still applying old rules and expectations to the behavior of the administration. Indeed, no one blinked an eye this time at the fact that Ms. Trump was again wearing Dolce, a brand most recently in the news for cultural missteps in China so egregious that citizens posted videos of themselves burning their bags.

Maybe the choice was part of the trade war posturing. Whatever!

So it was expensive. Whatever!

So it wasn’t American or British or consistently diplomatic. Whatever.

She looked good, if a little like she had just stepped off a film set — buttoned-up, contained and opaque as usual.

What really got people worked up in regards to the Trumps’ wardrobe was the president’s white-tie faux pas: a too-long vest under his tailcoat at the state dinner. Why that sort of excess should have been a surprise is unclear. As his penchant for oversize ties and suits (and crowds) shows, the president clearly believes in exaggeration of all kinds. And given his absolute surety that his way is the right way and the current let-Trump-be-Trump attitude of his White House, who would tell him otherwise? Not the secretary of treasury (and appropriately vested) Steven Mnuchin.

The true revelation of this particular sartorial parade has been how fast our expectations for executive-branch appearance, honed over multiple administrations and historical examples from the Kennedys on, have evaporated — in this as in so much else.

Two years ago, when Mr. Trump first took office, there was a presumption that Mrs. Trump, reluctant as she was to the play the first lady game, would nevertheless be canny with her clothes: she had been a model, after all. She wore all-American to the inauguration. She understood what could be read into a photograph (and if she didn’t, or her team didn’t, that “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” coat brouhaha would have been all the learning experience needed).

Yet again and again she has chipped away at the practice, previously considered a real tool of soft power, a way to subtly support local industry or suggest outreach to a host country. It’s clear she understands the precedent — she wore Chanel to the French state dinner last year (because why? Accident? Doubtful!) — but not how she decides when to break it.

It’s gotten so confusing that in London, when her stepdaughter Ivanka wore a fussy white peplum jacket and pleated skirt by Alessandra Rich on the first day — going so far as to pop on a fascinator à la Ascot — and then opted for Carolina Herrera for the state dinner, followed by Burberry polka dots to meet with Theresa May, a classic British-American-British nod to the special relationship, practically no one noticed.

Now it seems almost quaint, the belief that a first lady should use her wardrobe to advance a recognizable, if subtle, domestic or diplomatic point. Such a charming, old-fashioned relic of a different time. Like when we also expected our leaders to believe when they represent the nation, they represent all people.

And yet that doesn’t mean there is no agenda involved. It’s just not the one we are used to.

In their own specific way, the Trumps actually are doing what their forbearers did: using their clothing to reflect their approach to governance. It’s just that their approach seems to rely on the incoherent, the startling, the eye-catching and the politically incorrect. In dress, it is increasingly apparent, as it is on Twitter.

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