The Death of Fashion Diplomacy White-tie faux pas? Hat tricks? It’s time we stopped expecting the Trumps to play by any of the old rules.

President Trump, the first lady Melania Trump and Queen Elizabeth II at the state banquet at Buckingham Palace.CreditCreditPool photo by Doug Mills


The Death of Fashion Diplomacy

White-tie faux pas? Hat tricks? It’s time we stopped expecting the Trumps to play by any of the old rules.

Vanessa Friedman

By Vanessa Friedman

  • June 7, 2019

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.P

President Macron of France greeting first lady, Melania Trump, ahead of the D-day commemoration in Portsmouth, Britain, on June 5.CreditJack Hill/Pool, via Reuters

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.)

Mrs. Trump walking with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall through the garden of Buckingham Palace in London during a welcome ceremony on the first day of President Trump’s state visit to Britain.

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. TimesActually, 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.

Mrs. Trump on her way to London from Washington in her matching Gucci homage-to-London dress.CreditJim Watson/Agence France-Presse —

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.

TImageThe Trumps arriving in London; Mrs. Trump is in a Burberry skirt.CreditWill Oliver/EPA, via ShutterstockImage

Mrs. Trump at the black tie dinner at the American Embassy wearing Givenchy by Clare Waight Keller.CreditBefore the black tie dinner at the American embassy, Mrs. Trump wearing Givenchy by Clare Waight Keller

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 Mrs. 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.

The Trumps heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May.CreditNeil Hall/EPA, via ShutterstockImageThe Trumps heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May.CreditNeil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

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 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

.Ivanka Trump and Liam Fox, the British secretary of state for international trade, arriving for the state banquet.

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.

Ms. Trump wearing a suit by the British designer Alessandra Rich, and a fascinator on her head, with Jared Kushner.

Ms. Trump paying diplomatic homage to her host country by wearing another British brand: Burberry.

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 startling, the eye-catching and the politically incorrect. In dress, it is increasingly apparent, as it is on Twitter.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedmanA version of this article appears in print on June 7, 2019, on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Trumps Play by Own Rules in Fashion Diplomacy.

Trump’s catastrophic fashion choices in England were not just a sign of bad taste

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Shannon Airport in Ireland. They left the pomp and the hats back in England. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

By Robin Givhan Fashion critic June 5

The president and first lady have landed in Ireland. They have left the pomp and pageantry of England. Melania Trump has removed her Phillip Treacy hat. The president is once again in a business suit and his too-long ties. But like an American whose rough vowels suddenly get all posh and polished in the presence of a British accent, the president seems to have absorbed a hint — just a hint — of British precision: He has buttoned his jacket.

So little, so late.

Like the contrails of a jetliner, the first couple leave behind a photo spread of face-framing hats, designer evening gowns, one Gucci postcard frock, one pussybow blouse and one spectacularly ill-fitting example of full evening dress.

The Phillip Treacy hat was a nod to England. It had vanished when Melania Trump deplaned in Ireland. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Fashion is diplomacy, and so what did this wardrobe say?

For any man to bungle white-tie dress — something so regimented, so steeped in tradition, so well-documented — he must be a man who doesn’t bother with the details, who doesn’t avail himself of ready expertise, who refuses to be a student of history or even of Google. White-tie attire is more science than art. The fit of the tailcoat is just so. Great flapping yards of the white waistcoat are not meant to hang below the jacket. The sleeves should not stretch to the base of the thumb. The jacket is not to be buttoned. And so on. White tie is fact-based. One cannot fudge it. One does not make white-tie decisions based on one’s gut, lest one end up with the gut overly exposed.

The president’s exceptionally awful version of white tie. The first lady wears Dior. (Doug Mills/AFP/Getty Images)

The president’s iteration of white tie at the state banquet at Buckingham Palace was, in a word, a mess. The waistcoat was too long and too tight. The tailcoat did not fit. The trousers were voluminous. And the man himself looked so ill at ease in the whole unfortunate kit that his awkwardness loomed over him like Pig-Pen’s dust cloud.

The visual was of a man who looked out of place — by his own hand — at a moment of high formality and ceremony intended to convey comity.

[‘These boys were on a holiday’: Trump family members promote themselves, and businesses, on European trip]

The first lady, in contrast, was a zealous student of propriety and occasion throughout the England visit. She tried mightily to make a picture-perfect impression and whether one feels that her choices lacked subtlety or simply were not one’s taste, each ensemble reflected the formality of the situation, acknowledged tradition and yet remained true to the personal sensibility that she has displayed these past few years.

There were shirtdresses cinched tight with a belt, plus pussybow blouses, stiletto heels, sharp shoulders and at least one evening gown with a cape-style bodice. These are her signatures and they create a look that is controlled and reserved. And with the addition of broad-brimmed hats tilted to the side — including one by her regular collaborator Hervé Pierre — she often looked like she was a fashion trooper on a stealth mission.

To host a black-tie dinner at Winfield House, Melania Trump wore a scarlet evening gown by Givenchy, which is helmed by British designer Clare Waight Keller. The president didn’t bother to button his jacket. (Alastair Grant/AP)

She pulled out fashion’s big guns. As far as one could tell, there were no up-and-coming designers represented in her public wardrobe. The brands roll off the tongue like the directory at the Mall at Short Hills: Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Gucci, Burberry and so forth. There were moments when her homage to England rang as simplistic, such as when she departed the White House in a Gucci dress with a souvenir print featuring pictures of landmarks such as Big Ben, along with a double-decker bus or two.

The Gucci “city print” shirt dress. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Her Burberry archive print blouse is a swirl of gold cords and medals with the word “society” emblazoned on the back and front. Her choice of the quintessential British brand was her most pointed homage to her hosts. Otherwise, there was a Celine trench coat, an Hermes Birkin bag, a Dolce & Gabbana white dress trimmed in navy and a white coat by the American label the Row. In her attire, the public saw allusions to Princess Diana and to Eliza Doolittle, which is to say that people saw a version of British style that has come to dominate the popular imagination even if none of those clothes had been conjured up by an actual British company. The first lady’s scarlet Givenchy evening gown at Winfield House was an indirect nod to British design talent — creative director Clare Waight Keller is British and also designed the wedding gown of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Melania Trump, dressed in Dolce & Gabbana with a hat by Hervé Pierre, meets Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as she arrives at Buckingham Palace. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Melania Trump’s clothes tell a deliberate fashion story, not one rooted in historical truth.

The first couple brought along all of his adult children — Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka and Tiffany. The boys looked about as comfortable in their white tie as did their father. Their ensembles were only slightly better fitting.

Ivanka Trump chose a pussybow neckline and leopard spots for 10 Downing Street. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Ivanka wore a peplum skirt suit and fascinator for a visit to Westminster Abbey. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivanka Trump, who is also an adviser to the president, chose a prim aesthetic for her stay in England. Her clothes oozed classic femininity, with the pleated skirts and the full-skirted pale blue Carolina Herrera gown she wore to Buckingham Palace.

Ivanka Trump, in Carolina Herrera, and Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade, arrive during the state banquet at Buckingham Palace. (Pool/Reuters)

Her style is studiously gentle and without hard edges. She is the soft-focus daughter. The one who is always present, always at the table. Seen, even heard, but not quite defined.

If there was any visual story of the Trump clan in England, it is one that is broken up into bits. Their fashion choices speak for them and about them: a respectful hat and a beautiful Dior gown; one daughter drifting along in a cloud of frothy silk and chiffon, another one weighed down in unseasonably dark burgundy and positioned on the edges of a group picture. The sons of privilege are miniatures of the father as they stand stiffly in their white tie, Instagramming their not-so-humble bragging. The son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with his lineless face, toddler cheeks and astute tailoring, was there but not there.

And the president, at the center of it all — was the man who could have done so much better.

Robin Givhan Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post’s fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow Most Read Lifestyle

Jalyn’s Top Ten Trends for Spring 2019

  1. Tie Dye

Psychedelic tie dye returns from those hippie decades in many guises, including fun sneakers.

2. Accordian Pleats

Accordian pleats are a carry over trend from fall, usually midi length, still flattering, in prints and colors, often worn with sneakers and sandals for a more casual look.

3. Boiler Room Jumpsuits

Jumpsuits are still a trend, and this season, they have the look of a work uniform for a boiler room, but in colors and tie dye prints.

4. Light Neutrals

Light neutrals, layered as well as from head to toe, are easy to wear and easy to accessorize, providing a soothing counterpoint to the brights and bold prints.

5. Lace

Lace is always a feminine touch but is reworked in interesting ways, i.e. as a sweatshirt or in bright colors.

6. Denim

The au courant news in denim is the retro look from the 1980s, acid washed denim. Denim is also strong in other silhoutettes, such as head to toe suiting and dresses.

7. Straw and Wicker Handbags

Straw and wicker handbags  just seem to spell summer and sunshine, especially with fun embellishments and leather trim.

8. Yellow

Yellow telegraphs warm weather and infuses the season with brightness and joy, in outfits as well as accessories.

9. Mixed Prints

Prints are not only bold, but are mixed together for an even bolder look.

10. Utility Look

Designers seemed to draw inspiration from Jane Goodall’s safari wardrobe, hence the return of the cargo pant, safari jacket, and minimalist utility details.

Trends by definition come and go and will not suit everyone, so choose what works in your wardrobe and with your style, mindful that runway looks get translated to more wearable options but do serve as inspiration.