You’d think by now Donald Trump would have learned it’s not wise to tell women what to do. It backfires on him, as we saw when some 3 million women marched in the streets two weeks ago. Yet it’s a foolproof way to grab headlines and bandwidth. So we’ve seen with response to reports the president has told female White House staff that they should “dress like women.”
Telling women to dress “like women,” perversely, is the most liberating so far of the new U.S. president’s sandstorm of edicts. It means women can wear pretty much what they choose, as a barrage of #dresslikewomen Tweets make clear. Dressing “like women” circa 2017 includes wearing lab coats, surgical scrubs, evening gowns or pants, heels or flats, frills or army fatigues, zero-gravity suits, hijabs, “men’s wear,” police uniforms, and on and on and on.
The messaging here is bigger of course. Appearances, and image, matter hugely to Trump. Never mind that he favours ill-fitting Brioni suits that went out of fashion in the ’80s and wears his hair in the style of a candy-floss Kangol hat. With typical grandiosity, Trump sees himself a fashion arbiter. His 2005 book, Think Like a Billionaire, slams custom-tailored suits as a waste of time: “I don’t recommend it unless you have an oddly shaped body, and unless you have a great deal of time,” his ghostwriter wrote.
Now he’s shaping the imagery of a nation, with an aesthetic that’s decidedly white and male. Trump has commented on the clothing of male staff as well. He reportedly upbraided his press secretary Sean Spicer for the fit and colour of his suit at the first White House presser. Top advisor Steve Bannon, who presents like a walking hangover, might seem to be exempt. But even his typically rumpled look has been cleaned up lately. Such fretting about dress code offers a sad, rare and thin veneer of decorum (and reverses Obama’s more casual approach) as the new president dismantles U.S. democracy.
Women, of course, are a separate case. As the former beauty pageant-owner has made clear, they’re fungible, valued for the visual or sexual pleasure they provide. His order for female staff to dress “like women” is clear code for a return to the style of the ’40s and ’50s, or the pre-Feminine Mystique ’60s. In other words, a time before women had reproductive rights or their own checking accounts, and when raping one’s wife was “marital sex.” Back then, approved lady-wear consisted of sleeveless dresses, pencil skirts, high heels, clothing much like that worn by Trump’s MIA wife Melania and adviser KellyAnne Conway. But it doesn’t have to stop there: Why not mandate girdles, garter belts, petticoats and bullet bras? Given that it’s Trump, the instruction could be commercially driven. It could be a quasi-veiled order to buy from his daughter Ivanka’s “lady-like” fashion line, which took a major hit this week when Nordstrom announced it was dropping it.
Conway, the highest profile woman in Trump’s administration, appears the female sartorial benchmark. Whether Trump praised or excoriated her for the cartoonishly patriotic red-white-and-blue, Italian-designed military-style coat she wore at the inauguration isn’t known. But given Trump’s fondness for the garish, he probably loved it. In this, his taste dovetails perfectly with the over-the-top, gilded aesthetic of dictators worldwide. Trump and Saddam Hussein, who delighted in showing off his gold-plated toilets with matching gold toilet brushes, could have shared a contractor. At the swearing-in, Conway called her get-up “Revolutionary Wear.” Now we’re seeing what this “revolution” looks like: Trump telling women employed by the American people what to wear as he readies to roll back the clock. At least they’ll be dressed for it.