Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
The countdown to November 3rd is on. In the midst of massive civil unrest and a raging pandemic still claiming more than one thousand lives a day, American voters are set to go to the polls in perhaps the most consequential presidential election of modern times. The enormity of what is at stake is often difficult to comprehend. However, the English Literature student in me looks for symbols, and they’re not hard to find.
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse,” Michelle Obama told viewers at the Democratic National Convention last month, “trust me, they can, and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.” Yet, Mrs Obama made just as great a point with what she didn’t say (aloud) as what she did, and it was in one single word that her side’s fight for America’s moral compass was on display.
Like it or not, a first lady’s style is always political. A designated fashion market-mover throughout her tenure in the White House, Michelle Obama knows well the power of sartorial politics. From her love of high-street designers, to the modern (Fox News read: ‘controversial’) cuts of her clothes, to her unifying outreach from the pages of Vogue, the former first lady leveraged the public scrutiny of high profile women’s appearances to her advantage. In doing so she could tell the world, in the words of one of her former designers, “what she was about.”
Her appearance at the DNC was no exception. ‘V-O-T-E’. The words spelled out in the fine gold letters of her necklace. Throughout her speech, viewers could make no mistake about the only sure-fire way to end the nightmare that is the current White House. Not only that, but the necklace represents a clear nod to the current civil unrest surrounding racial injustice in the United States. The brand, ByChari, is an Black-owned small jewellery business founded by Jamaican-born creative director and designer, Chari Cuthbert. Custom-made for Mrs Obama, the necklace elevated the voices of her fellow Black women to the convention floor in a time of moral reckoning for America.
Rewind to 2018, however, and you will find a very different story. When visiting children detained at the Texas border, Melania Trump made the message of her husband’s administration toward the separation of families clear. ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do U?’, read her jacket of choice. While her husband’s tweeted defence of her was that the slogan referred “to the Fake News Media,” her own communications director told a different story. “It’s a jacket,” she said. “There’s no hidden message.” Hidden, no. In fact, the message was all too plain to see.
Rather than a spotlight shone on the human rights abuses at the US-Mexico border, what followed was media speculation over the intended recipient of her not-so-subtle message. Was it the immigrant families? Her husband? The media? Critics of her husband’s policy? The policy-makers? The list goes on.
Whoever the intended target, those who faced the realities of that message remained the same. Families. Children. Asylum seekers. Whatever Melania Trump’s media game-playing, the words across her back could not have been more accurate. Trump, and his administration, cares for nothing and no-one but themselves.
In both first lady’s unspoken words are the values over which this election is being fought. The politics of inclusion, activism, empowerment and positive change, versus those of hatred, bigotry, exclusion and demagoguery. The choice would seem simple, and yet it will take adhering to the sartorial rallying cry of Michelle Obama to succeed.