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Why First Lady fashion matters

We should care what the FLOTUS wore during her trip to India because the what-shall-I-wear question has been a political dilemma in the subcontinent for at least 200 years

Fashion diplomacy? Melania Trump wore a Carolina Herrera shirt-dress embroidered with lotus flowers.
Fashion diplomacy? Melania Trump wore a Carolina Herrera shirt-dress embroidered with lotus flowers.

In 2011, Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, slammed the Indian media for its “frivolous" focus on her dress, particularly her Birkin handbag. “A guy in my place would never get such attention... nobody would be talking about his suit," she raged.

This week too, even as parts of north-east Delhi erupted in horrific violence, news media—including Mint—found space to discuss Melania Trump’s clothing. Why? Because, as Michelle Obama wrote in her autobiography Becoming, “Optics governed more or less everything in the political world." And she “factored this into every outfit".

While US President Donald Trump’s bright yellow tie caught eyeballs as he and First Lady Melania Trump disembarked at Gujarat’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International airport on 24 February, it was Melania’s green and gold sash that caught everybody’s attention. Perhaps, as Khar quipped, it is a cultural tendency to comment on women’s clothing and appearance. Perhaps it is because the outfits of male politicians rarely offer much to talk about. But jokes about her sash resembling a karate-belt aside, the cummerbund-like accessory was a subtle nod to India, adding a touch of colour to her all-white crepe jumpsuit by the label Atelier Caito for Hervé Pierre. On Instagram, her long-time style adviser Pierre shared that it was made from a vintage Indian textile sourced in Paris.

Known to emulate Jacqueline Kennedy’s style, Melania channelled the former FLOTUS and fashion icon’s monochromatic palette for her arrival in India. When we spoke to designer Troy Costa on Monday—Costa is frequently called upon to style Prime Minister Narendra Modi—he was confident that Melania would “most definitely wear an Indian designer" during her 36-hour visit. Michelle Obama, for instance, championed Indian-origin designers such as Bibhu Mohapatra and Naeem Khan; Kate Middleton, too, wore an outfit by Anita Dongre when she was here.

Turned out, Troy called it wrong. Melania chose to stick to only American designers through her trip. She wore an outfit by Indian-American designer Rachel Roy on the flight to India but that doesn’t count. Ivanka Trump, however, did wear two Indian designers—a bandhgala by Anita Dongre, an anarkali by Rohit Bal—while also making a case for sustainability by repeating a dress that she wore during her visit to Argentina in 2019 (in case you missed it, repeating outfits is now a woke celebrity trend).

Melania’s Day 2 outfits, both by Carolina Herrera, had nods to India as well. Her white shirt-dress for the ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan had embroidered flowers. They weren’t just any flowers, but the lotus. The lotus motif is not only a nod to India’s national flower and the ruling party’s symbol but also a throwback to Herrera’s Venezuelan roots, a country where the lotus is popular. It is open to interpretation either way. Talk about fashion diplomacy. In the evening, her hot pink gown had a bow that was meant to evoke a pallu—and since Indian movie audiences have been trained by Disha Patani’s stringy pallus, they possibly saw it that way. The understated references were a good idea, since wearing Indian clothing does not always offer the best results, as the Trudeaus might have learnt the hard way after their visit 2018. Melania kept the Indian touches visible but minimal—her hot pink gown was accessorized with jhumkas from Amrapali and embroidered pink juttis.

The First Lady’s style choices are a powerful political tool to engage with the host country on diplomatic visits. And overall, for someone whose wardrobe choices have been repeatedly deemed insensitive in the past, Melania fared well. No faux pas like the Zara “I-Really-Don’t-Care-Do-U?" jacket she wore while visiting migrant children at the Texas-Mexico border or the pith helmet—a symbol of colonial rule across Africa—she picked for a safari in Kenya.

Indian President Rajendra Prasad (right) swearing in new Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as India becomes a republic, January 30, 1950
Indian President Rajendra Prasad (right) swearing in new Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as India becomes a republic, January 30, 1950

All talk of politics and clothing remind me of a piece by senior journalist Sheela Reddy in Outlook in 2011 in response to Khar’s charges of “frivolity". Reddy argued that the what-shall-I-wear question has been a political dilemma in the subcontinent for at least 200 years. “A nation fathered by a man who understood and harnessed the symbolic power of dress, our leaders could hardly afford to ignore it," she wrote. She recalled the incident of president Rajendra Prasad, who agonized over his outfit for three days before the first Republic Day ceremony. He certainly didn’t think his dress dilemma was too frivolous to be discussed. Reddy also writes that in a letter dated 23 January 1950, written on his official letterhead, he appealed to Jawaharlal Nehru. What should I wear? he asked. “General Cariappa suggested to me... that I should wear a black or grey achkan and churidar pyjama." Over that, the general suggested he wear a blue or orange sash with the Ashok Chakra symbol. “I am the last person to have any opinion in such matters," Prasad admitted to Nehru, adding, “I would like to be guided by you."

Nehru, who took matters of clothing seriously, sat down to answer it immediately, even though Prasad’s letter arrived “a little after midnight". His advice was, “Keep it simple." He shot down the coloured sash and chakra, and suggested that Prasad go for just a black achkan and white churidar pyjamas.

Clothing, politics and identity are a tight weave. In her book Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, the anthropologist Emma Tarlo writes about Tagore’s enthusiastic endorsement of the “chapkan" as the “dress of Hindus and Muslims combined". At the turn of the twentieth century, he was not in favour of the dhoti as it was “too Hindu". Yet, dhotis reemerged on the streets of Kolkata with a vengeance. Sparked off by Lord Curzon’s announcement on the partition of Bengal, they became for about five years the ultimate symbol of swadeshi and of the Bengali man’s opposition to British policies.

One cannot miss the Gandhi topi as an enduring sarto-political statement. Having emerged during the First Non-Cooperation movement during 1918–1921—Gandhi himself only wore it for two years between 1920-21—it had a political revival in 2011 with anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare. By presenting himself in a Gandhi topi, he was presenting himself as Gandhi’s successor. He also adopted Gandhi’s hallmark method of the public hunger strike. When the Aam Aadmi Party was founded in November 2012, its leader was another enthusiastic Gandhi topi wearer, Arvind Kejriwal.

What can clothing tell us about politics? The day Melania starts sporting gancho or cadenilla embroidery, the ornate handiwork of Mexico, we will know that change is underway.

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