It Is a Relief to Want to Write About Political Fashion Again

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Tyler McCall
·5 min read
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There's still so much work to be done, but the jolt of joy brought by clothing on Inauguration Day is deeply encouraging.

Just over four years ago, in the wake of the 2016 election, we here at Fashionista were faced with a question: What would we do about Melania Trump, the incoming First Lady?

You see, Fashionista — like nearly every other fashion outlet in the world — had sometimes breathlessly covered the fashion choices of First Lady Michelle Obama, who had set the bar incredibly high for using fashion to make a statement at just about every occasion. She was known for choosing the right label for the right moment, for mixing high and low pieces together during a period of great economic struggle for most Americans. Her stamp of approval had the ability to put young American designers on the map, and she regularly championed the American fashion industry, both within the White House and outside of it.

For Mrs. Trump, however, the extent of the messaging transmitted through her wardrobe choices — which mostly included off-the-rack pieces from Gucci, Chanel and Valentino — seemed to stop at: "I'm wealthy, and I can afford it." There was no cleverness to her choices, no thought-out plans about what she could communicate, save for a few bone-chillingly callous moments. There wasn't anything particularly thoughtful about, say, a $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana jacket purchased at retail, and the times where one might suspect her of using fashion for messaging, the message was so abhorrent it didn't seem right to give it the air space.

So, we said that we would not be covering Melania Trump's wardrobe as First Lady.

It wasn't as though we never covered fashion through the lens of Donald Trump's presidency. Ivanka Trump had fashion and jewelry lines she kept open for far too long, using her high office to promote them. (At one point, after Nordstrom dropped her line, Kellyanne Conway gave her a "free commercial" on Fox News, which is, as it turns out, pretty illegal.) Tiffany Trump showed up front row at fashion week, which caused a minor scene at the Philipp Plein show

But throughout the past four hellish years, while watching crisis after crisis unfold, covering something as simple as what brands those closest to power were wearing felt not just wrong, but impossible. Personally, entire weeks would go by where I'd struggle to care about fashion in general, let alone write about it.

What a relief, then, to finally feel hope this week: hope for our country, yes, but also, hope for a fashion industry that has been struggling immensely in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. 

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As the fashion credits began to roll in on Tuesday evening, it was profoundly encouraging to compile a list of American designers, all thoughtfully and specially chosen for this moment in history. A Pyer Moss coat and Christopher John Rogers ensemble for the first female, first Black and first South Asian Vice President-elect on the eve of the Inauguration; ethically-made pieces by Jonathan Cohen and Gabriela Hearst for the incoming First Lady; a showstopping monochromatic look from Sergio Hudson for former First Lady Michelle Obama — it all marked not just a return of intentional and meaningful dressing to the political stage, but also the return of joy.

As I watched Twitter pop off with jokes about Ella Emhoff, the First Daughter of Bushwick, and memeify Bernie Sanders's grouchy sitting posture, I could feel my body physically relax. There were jokes on Jan. 20, 2017 — never forget Kellyanne Conway's ridiculous "Trump revolutionary wear" Gucci coat — but the tone had been extremely dark. It feels worlds away now from, say, the jokes being made about Nikolas Ajagu's Dior Air Force 1s.

I'm certainly not so naive as to believe all the amazing fashion moments from the past few days add up to much beyond brilliant PR strategy. A Pyer Moss coat, no matter how great the messaging, won't achieve the racial justice so desperately needed in this country. A Gabriela Hearst dress, no matter how beautifully and ethically made, won't stop the relentless march of climate change. A Sergio Hudson ensemble, no matter how statement-making, won't give us all universal health care or bring back the 400,000 American lives lost to the Covid-19 crisis. All of the custom couture fashion in the world doesn't make one iota of difference to the millions of unemployed citizens struggling to pay rent or buy groceries.

But on the day that Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, I wasn't just excited to write about fashion, I was honored to shed another spotlight on inaugural poet Amanda Gorman's optimistic Prada look. Editing Ana's write up of the outfits worn by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to an event honoring lives lost to Covid-19 made me cry. Then, the next day, we spotted pieces by Brandon Maxwell and Prabal Gurung at the Inaugural Prayer Service. 

It's hard to imagine American fashion designers aren't feeling a bit of hope themselves.

And it goes beyond symbolism and accolades. According to data shared by Launchmetrics on Thursday morning, the estimated Media Impact Value of brands' Inauguration Day placement was huge: Markarian saw $3.1 million in MIV and Jonathan Cohen $1.8 million in MIV from their placements on First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. For dressing Vice President Harris, Christopher John Rogers earned $5.1 million worth of MIV, Sergio Hudson $4.4 million (no doubt boosted by Mrs. Obama, too) and Pyer Moss $3.5 million. That's quite a lot of value — and many of these figures aren't even 24 hours old.

There's still so much work to be done, but it's easier to put our heads down and power through when we have optimism that our voices will be heard. That's the power that fashion can hold.

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