For the Job They Want?: Political Dressing Missteps
Published on May 2, 2023, at 7:21 p.m.
by Ginger Morrow.
It’s no secret that clothing communicates a message, be it intentional or unintentional. This is especially true when the wearer is one of the most powerful people in the world. Somehow, though, political leaders always find a way to defy fashion expectations and make statements we don’t expect.
In recent history, who can forget the case of President Barack Obama and his infamous tan suit, worn during an address about combating ISIS. Pundits criticized him for the color choice, saying it communicated a sense of leisure and flippancy. Looking back, the real troublemakers seem to be the members of the media who started the conversation. The main perpetrator was a Fox News contributor, who called the look “un-presidential.” Unearthed pictures of President Ronald Reagan in a similar color helped quiet the noise. Obama never took the situation to heart and has joked about it several times since.
A more recent example of a political frenzy stemming only from a poor garment choice is Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care. Do U?” jacket. She wore the $39 Zara jacket on a trip to the Southern border, which was a source of criticism for her husband following his policy to separate children from their families mid-crossing. The world saw the jacket as a statement of irreverence toward the suffering of immigrant families. She clarified that the message was meant for hypercritical members of the media who refused to cover any of her significant work as first lady. The damage was already done.
Melania Trump and other first ladies like Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan have often been criticized for their massive clothing budgets. Trump’s $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana coat, Lincoln’s $2,000 ball gowns (yes, that’s 1860’s money!) and Reagan’s love affair with Oscar de la Renta in the midst of a recession all garnered intense media scrutiny.
Note, none of the above instances attracted attention because the garment itself was particularly repulsive. The attention came from the messages their clothing communicated to the American people, suggesting the wearers just don’t care about the situation at hand.
Public relations professionals owe it to their clients to give the most up-to-date and comprehensive advice. It’s up to media teams to predict what speaking should be done through fashion and what speaking the client should do themself. PR personnel must consider the big picture and the context surrounding their messaging. Clothing decisions for people of prominence should only communicate exactly what they intend — or, more often, nothing at all.