When Michelle Obama chose to wear a sleeveless dress in her first official photo as First Lady, a national uproar erupted.
When Angela Merkel chose to wear a beautiful gown at an Oslo opera house gala, the press chose to focus on her cleavage, with outlets like the Daily Mail publishing an image of the German chancellor with this headline: “Merkel’s weapons of mass distraction.” After Hillary Clinton showed up at a fundraiser in Massachusetts, it only took a day for headlines to call her out on her clothing choices, with one of the most unapologetic being the Daily Wire’s piece titled "Hillary Breaks Out The Ugliest Outfit In Human History."
A woman’s appearance is under a microscope—or perhaps more appropriately, in the headlines—far more often than that of her male counterparts. This trend is far from new, and has somehow persisted amidst progress in other areas. In 1995, Hillary Clinton famously commented that if she wanted to get on the front page, all she had to do was change her hair.
It’s because of this unfair double standard that I hesitate to call out any woman for her clothing. Women should be judged on who they are and what they stand for, not what they wear… to a point.
Because it doesn’t matter how the outfit looks, it matters what it literally says.
First Lady Melania Trump recently made headlines when, in response to the White House’s prior zero-tolerance immigration policy, boarded a plane in Maryland to visit a detention center in Texas housing migrant children who have been taken from their parents. Scrawled in white paint across the back of her cargo-style jacket were the words: "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?"
Had the media attacked her for choosing to wear a jacket that, let’s face it, is so last season, I would be the first to jump to her defense. It doesn’t matter that Melania can’t keep up with trends. What does is that she wore a jacket that exactly depicts the extreme contempt that the current administration has towards immigrants.
Of course, the First Lady's spokesperson said it was just a jacket. Then the president said it was a message to the media. But the jacket really serves as a message from Melania herself; more than just being complicit in her husband’s actions, she’s an accomplice. There are a lot of people who say that Mrs. Trump is a victim or a prisoner (remember all those “Free Melania” signs at the Women's March?). There is a guilty pleasure in watching all those videos where she actively avoids Trump’s touch (my favorite being when she smacks his hand away in Israel.)
The narrative that Melania has no idea what her husband is doing is not only misogynistic, it’s also untrue. Everyone seems to forget that in 2011, Melania Trump appeared on HLNto help spread birther conspiracies about President Obama. There’s no actual evidence that Melania objects any of Donald Trump’s outrageous claims. It’s misogynistic to assume that she isn’t a grown woman with her own opinions and doesn’t have her own agency.
The position of First Lady is an honor and privilege, but it also comes with a significant amount of power. She’s able to speak up and be proactive. Even now as I am typing this my roommates are scoffing that “she’s miserable” and that "she’s a prisoner.” But prisoners are the people being held in cages *ahem chain link fences* at the border. Prisoners aren’t people who willingly enter into relationships with known playboys. Prisoners aren’t people who continuously defend their “captor” when every point of reason tells them not to.
When the infamous tapes came out of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault, Melania sat down with CNN’s Anderson Cooper to blame the tape’s release on the conspiratorial “left-wing media” and to discount the recording as “boy talk.” When she was pressed on the vast amounts of women who had since come forward and accused Donald Trump of sexual assault, she, with her own words, said “I know he respects women but he is defending himself because they are all lies.” She is able to express her thoughts clearly and carefully. Melania is an active participant pushing forward her husband’s agenda and it’s time to stop pretending that she is completely lacking any agency.
She’s not a prisoner, but more importantly, she’s not blissfully unaware of the implications of her outfit choices. Melania is familiar with having her clothing choices scrutinized by the media, she has been in the limelight long before her husband's political career. And since his turn in politics and long before the jacket, her clothing choices have often been scrutinized. During the 2016 campaign, Melania's Gucci pussy-bow blouse (post-pussy grabbing comments) caused a frenzy on social media. In 2017, Melania Trump accompanied the President for a visit to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting and faced backlash on Twitter for wearing sunglasses at night. And the most notable of her fashion controversies (until now) was when she wore python Manolo Blahnik stilettos while visiting victims of Hurricane Harvey.
So the question is, when does it matter what a woman wears? Does it matter when Michelle chooses to show off her toned biceps in a portrait? Does it matter what pantsuit Hillary wears today? Does it matter if Melania wears Manolos or flats? It might be unfair to call these women out for choosing to wear clothing that makes them feel comfortable or confident or both. It shouldn’t matter what a woman wears when her male counterpart would not be judged as harshly. No one is writing about Obama’s choice to wear another black tailored suit. No one is writing about how great Romney’s butt looks in his tight pair of khakis. Too often women are critiqued for not being fashionable enough, for wearing clothing that is unflattering (or perhaps too flattering). Critiques in women’s clothing should be on what the clothing literally says.
Melania doesn’t care. Do you?
Katrina Froelich is the Fashion Editor at Tough to Tame. She’s worked in the fashion industry for over four years, gaining experience in PR and Editorial work at companies such as GUESS and Forme. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org